Artists Of The Year CMU Approved

CMU Artists Of The Year 2014: Taylor Swift

By | Published on Friday 19 December 2014

Every weekday in the run up to the Christmas break, we’ve been revealing another of our ten favourite artists of the year. See the full list of artists here and listen to a playlist of their music here. Last on our list is Taylor Swift…

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift, eh? Taylor Swift. Where would the world have been without the musical saviour of 2014? Trapped in a room with Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith, that’s where.

So thank the cosmic forces of the universe that Taylor Swift finally became the popstar she’s long been threatening to become this very year. A popstar who will slap you around with her thoughts on the music business, even if you’re not that keen to engage with her on a musical level.

Who could have predicted that any of this would happen? Eight years ago, the fifteen year old Swift released her debut single, a country song so country that it was named after another country singer. And, as everyone knows, country is a genre so shit that literally no one likes it. Seriously, how many people do you know who really love country music? Don’t answer that if you live in the United States, you’ll ruin this. Don’t ruin this for me? Why do you always have to ruin everything?

Anyway, the teenage Swift carried on being a big country star, selling piles of records to crowds of people, even though none of them actually liked country music (this conceit isn’t working, is it? Shall I drop it? No I will not). But with each new album she sneaked a bit more pop into her sound, which is probably why people actually bought those records now I come to think about it.

Then in 2012 she released ‘Red’, which came loaded with pop wonders like single releases ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and the masterful ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’. It seemed like Swift had finally left country music behind for good. Except that when the album finally turned up on Spotify (and it took quite some time to do so), it emerged that she’d written a load of country songs to fill up space between the good bits. Man, people must have been annoyed if they actually bought that album in full.

This year, though. This year, Taylor Swift finally saw fit to go full pop with her fifth long-player ‘1989’. The title, of course, a reference to the year country music was banned in most civilised countries.

Speaking to Billboard about how this went down with the boss of her label Big Machine, a country label, Swift said: “When I knew the album had hit its stride, I went to Scott Borchetta and said, ‘I have to be honest with you: I did not make a country album. I did not make any semblance of a country album’. And of course he went into a state of semi-panic and went through all the stages of grief – the pleading, the denial. ‘Can you give me three country songs? Can we put a fiddle on ‘Shake it Off’?’ And all my answers were a very firm ‘no’, because it felt disingenuous to try to exploit two genres when your album falls in only one”.

Damn right. Look what happened with ‘Red’. So, with the ‘country-free-record’ guarantee now made, I bet you wanna hear what the all new Taylor Swift sounds like? Well, that’s an altogether more complicated matter.

As I mentioned before, Swift has had a lot of things to say about the music industry this year. Of course, there had been a bit of a hoo haa when she and her label held back ‘Red’ from the then still emerging streaming services in 2012, opting instead to shove the CD inside pizza boxes. But back then it was very much the aforementioned Borchetta who was justifying the no-to-streams-yes-to-pizza business dealings.

The first sign that things might be different this time around came in July this year, with an article penned for the Wall Street Journal by Swift herself. In it she stated: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art”.

So, it was a pretty safe bet that ‘1989’ was going nowhere near streaming services any time this year. Because it wasn’t. Though what no one predicted was that the week after the album’s release she’d remove everything she’d ever recorded from Spotify and Deezer too.

“All I can say is that music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment”, she told Yahoo! Music. “And I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music”.

“We never wanted to embarrass a fan”, Borchetta added in an interview with Nicki Sixx. “If this fan went and purchased the record, CD, iTunes, wherever, and then their friends go, ‘Why did you pay for it? It’s free on Spotify’, we’re being completely disrespectful to that superfan who wants to invest”.

It has to be said, none of that entirely rings true. I mean, does that mean everyone who buys the album on iTunes is a “superfan”? Do people really mock “superfans” who pay for music? What about those who play her back catalogue on the streaming services that don’t have a freemium option? Because her music (minus ‘1989’) is still up on those platforms. The battle, you see, is more about Swift and Borchetta wanting an opt-out on freemium on those streaming services offering on-demand functionality.

But Spotify forces artists to have their music available on all of its different tiers – from ad-supported freemium to fully paid-up premium. This, says Spotify’s Daniel Ek and, last week, Warner Music, helps to convert people using the free-to-access service into paid users. It’s fundamental to making Spotify a success, says Ek, and choosing either/or would be bad for everyone. Because everyone’s in this together, right?

Except Taylor Swift isn’t everyone. Taylor Swift is Taylor Swift, currently the most successful popstar going. And perhaps the key thing to take from Swift’s year, and her one-woman battle with the fastest growing music service of the moment, is that when you’re the world’s most popular popstar, that still gives you licence to do whatever the fuck you want. And what Swift wants is for people to pay for her music before getting it on demand.

And you do sense that this was very much Swift’s own decision. She seems genuinely involved in the business side of her music, and in controlling her personal brand. Albeit taking advice, in no small part, from the country music industry, which remains one of the most resistant to the new digital world. But was her Spotify spat a bad decision? Well, it hasn’t really hurt the Taylor Swift business in 2014, has it? Though, of course, she is one of the biggest popstars of now, so would probably have had equal success even if she had had everything on Spotify. I guess we’ll never really know though.

But what is certain is that by breaking away from country music sonically speaking Swift has become what most popstars are not, an album artist. ‘1989’ is a brilliantly put together record that benefits from knowing what it is from beginning to end. No mixing of genres to ensure that 100% of your fans are only happy 50% of the time. This time around, rather than trying to please too many different people, it really feels – from the music to how it was released – that with ‘1989’ Swift was largely trying to please herself. And creatively she’s all the better for it.

Because, yes, despite intending to hold out until she eventually caved and let me listen to her new record on my musical platform of choice, it was me who caved first and went over to her world. I paid my money and downloaded ‘1989’. As I said before, I was relieved I hadn’t done that when I finally heard ‘Red’. But this time around, the more snatches of the album I heard, the more I wanted to hear it in full. The more I couldn’t wait.

Damn you, Swift. Although I think it’ll be a lot harder to justify holding out from streaming services next time you come to release an album, this time around you’ve definitely earned the right to call the shots.

If you’re still a Swift hold-out, here’s all I can give you – ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Blank Space’: