Tag Archives: Taylor Swift

My Love/Hate Relationship With Streaming

image by Todd via flickr

image by Todd via flickr

From a consumer standpoint, streaming services are the low-hanging fruit of the music industry: They are convenient, requiring little effort to listen to music and discover new artists. For a minimal fee (or, in some cases, no fee at all), users can access services that recommend new music, create playlists, and offer an extensive music catalog.

Streaming is not quite so simple for artists, who may be paid as little as thousandths of a cent for each stream. Even the massive number of plays (often in the low hundreds of millions) a most-played song receives is undermined by the tiny compensation rate; Taylor Swift’s record label Big Machine, for example, claims to have earned only $500,000 in one year for all of her songs. Artists at this level rarely need the money or the exposure, but it is still in their interest to protect the music. Some artists, notably Swift and Thom Yorke, have used their clout to protest this compensation model by withdrawing their music from low-paying services such as Spotify. It is entirely possible that the resulting negative publicity is worth the savings—the service won’t have to pay the artist if they don’t offer the artist’s music.

The streaming services’ large catalogs give the illusion of potentially limitless variety for playlist curators and recommendation algorithms, but using these services can also breed a sense of conforming to something. As Ben Ratliff observes in The New York Times, “I always feel like I’m shopping somewhere, and the music [on curated playlists] reflects What Our Customers Like To Listen To.” Curated playlists are publicly available to all users and thus must appeal to the broadest possible audience: one primarily interested in pop and radio-friendly songs. While there are ostensibly differentiated playlists to match different moods, times of day, or activities, discerning listeners might find any one of these playlists bland and lacking in adventure. Still, streaming flourishes because of the millions of users willing to undergo a generic experience in exchange for having their music choices made for them. Continue reading

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Status Elites

In his new book, Elites: A General Model, sociologist Murray Milner, Jr. puts forward (according to Jeffrey Alexander of Yale University) “the first really new theory of elites in many decades.” Milner, a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, systematically analyzes the roles of economic and political elites. Unlike most work on elites, however, he draws special attention to status elites, including modern celebrities. The power of status elites is not primarily political or economic. Below is an adaptation of some of Milner’s thinking on status elites, and why they matter.

Within the literature on elites, status tends to be relatively ignored or neglected in favor of economic and political power. (By status I mean something like prestige, rank, honor, or dishonor—the accumulated expressions of approval and disapproval directed toward an actor or object.) It’s true that “status elites,” as I’ll call them, are in some respects residual, and tend to thrive in arenas where political and economic power are not particularly valued. They derive their power from extraordinary levels of beauty, bravery, knowledge, virtue, or eloquence.

Status is relatively inalienable—it is not easily transferred or appropriated—and inexpansible, so upward mobility is carefully restricted. Norms are made complicated in order to make it difficult to gain status: Brahmins create elaborate rules about purity and pollution; upper classes are often distinguished by accent, demeanor, and style; and scholars like myself must acquire erudition to be taken seriously.

Another source of status is associations; associating with those of high status improves your status, with those of low status lowers your status. This is especially the case with respect to intimate expressive relationships; eating and romantic relationships are key forms of intimacy. Hence, upper castes cannot eat with or marry those of lower castes, though they can interact with them in work situations. Teenagers care about “who eats with whom in the lunchroom” and who “goes with” or “hooks up with” whom, but are less concerned about who sits next to them in class—especially if seats are assigned by the teacher.

Milner Book CoverStatus elites can assume more than one form. They can be religious leaders, or actors, or journalists, or simply “famous for being famous.” Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier, Frank Sinatra, James Thurber, Ayn Rand, Harriet Beecher Stowe—all are elites who draw their prestige from their cultural or ideological abilities. There are also those elites who are celebrities or pop-stars, such as—today—Beyoncé, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and reality TV stars such as the Kardashians.

As societies become larger and more complex, it is very difficult for elites to be socially visible by physical presence—which doesn’t matter if you are seeking to become rich, but does matter if you want to become Beyoncé, for whom social visibility is a prerequisite to rank and power. Even the largest stadiums hold only a small percentage of the population of contemporary societies. Status must be created through the media—especially the mass media, which has created the modern-day celebrity. Continue reading

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Could Show You Incredible Things—But That Would Be a Trademark Violation

165033394 Getty Images

165033394 Getty Images

Heard any new dance songs lately—you know, the kind with “this sick beat”? Want to put a perky logo on your new parasol? Don’t be tempted by “Cause we never go out of style.” If you do, you could be hit with a cease-and-desist from Taylor Swift’s growing posse of lawyers whose sole job, it would seem, is to protect her revenue stream, er, career.

Trademarking advertising phrases is a long-standing practice to help differentiate consumer products. Think of Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” or Nike’s “Just do it.” These slogans operate not simply with words, but also with visual associations such as cranky (but lovable) grandmas and recognizable typefaces and shapes. The Lanham Act, which defines trademarks, covers “…any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof…to identify and distinguish his or her goods, including a unique product, from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods, even if the source is unknown.”

When the news arrived that singer Taylor Swift had trademarked the phrases “Nice to meet you, where have you been,” “Could show you incredible things,” and “Cause we never go out of style,” it seemed the next logical step from a singer who had already shown herself to be remarkably savvy in protecting her brand. (Swift has also trademarked “Party like it’s 1989,” leading one to wonder if Prince, whose hit 1999 contains the line “So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s nineteen ninety-nine,” has contacted his own lawyers.)

These phrases are lyrics from Swift’s 1989, the number one hit album of 2014. Swift’s much-hyped reinvention certainly propelled the sales of 1989, but she also showed that she continues to be one of the most legally circumspect artists of our time. Her most recent headlines involved her withdrawal, on November 3, of her entire song catalogue from Spotify, the online music streaming service. Swift, like other artists, objected to Spotify’s paltry penny per play deal, the revenue of which goes mostly to record labels rather than the artists. She also objected to the fact that Spotify’s free users see ads, something that she believes devalues her art.

Reading between the lines in Swift’s Wall Street Journal op-ed from a few months earlier, one could see that the Spotify defection was probably already in the works. “There are many (many) people who predict the downfall of music sales and the irrelevancy of the album as an economic entity. I am not one of them,” Swift wrote. “Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently.”

Swift, who has also copyrighted her name, her signature, her initials, and the titles of her 2008 album Fearless and Speak Now from 2010, is right to be concerned about the degraded value of artistic production in the digital age. Even organizations or individuals with a complex security infrastructure have experienced breaches with breathtaking consequences—witness the Sony email hacking scandal or the leak of tracks from Madonna’s upcoming Rebel Heart album. Incursions into the systems surrounding big movie studios or megastars have apparently become the new normal. In a way, it shows the democratizing effects of the digital world in which we now live.

The leveling effects of the digital domain can take a relatively benign form, such as blurring traditional musical genre boundaries. It is not at all unusual these days for a folksy ballad to be remixed as electronic dance music, making it a hit in two categories. But who owns the song? The songwriter, the DJ, or both? More than a mere cover version, more than just a mash-up or sample, a remix creates new circumstances in which the intellectual property of one artist is recast into intellectual property of a completely new kind. This new product will most likely be made, distributed, and consumed in completely digital forms. If nothing else, copyright protection in the brave new world of digital music has led to the exploding growth of media law.

Swift’s trademarking frenzy is another example of how artists are scrambling to maintain control over their work in the face of the digital tsunami. While her lyrics are not particularly profound, as trademarked utterances they do, according to the Lanham Act, distinguish Swift’s product from that of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. But of greater interest in this case is how, in these digital times, the attempt to protect art tends to strangle free expression. Artists who have the means to send a platoon of lawyers on constant patrol for copyright infringement have tended to shift the balance between property rights and free speech. According to Vanderbilt law professor Michael Bressman in USA Today, “The danger is that you could have fairly well-heeled companies and individuals expansively taking over terrain and theoretically preventing others from using that terrain in the future.” If this is how Swift and other pop stars “handle the blow” of the digital domain, then we could find ourselves looking over our shoulders every time we utter a cliché. And that makes it hard to party like it’s 1989—or any other year.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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