Taylor Swiftonce said she hates being called calculating. But professionally, well, Taylor Swift might just be the most calculating celebrity in the world. Nothing — not her tweets, not her timing, not her announcements — is done by accident. And nowhere is that precise premeditation more successful than in the months leading up to a new album, where she creates a release cycle so finely tuned it generates more hype and money than anyone else.
“Artists as big as Taylor Swift don’t work in a vacuum,” said David Philp, a professor of music and entertainment industries at William Paterson University. “Everything we see has been in the planning stages, probably for many months.”
Because Swift is such a massive star, and because her team (who did not respond to multiple requests for a comment) is so smart in their planning, how she chooses to release an album not only tells us a lot about her, it’s a microcosm for how the music industry has changed.
Swift’s sixth studio album, Reputation, isn’t due out until Nov. 10, which means — with her first single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” being released last week — Swift is working on an almost three-month lead time. This more than 70-day buildup to a new album is hardly standard anymore in the music industry. In fact, the way Swift is releasing Reputation harkens back to an older model of music distribution that very few artists can still work well within.
“Long lead cycles like Taylor’s [are] a relic of print medium,” said George Howard, an associate professor of music business at Berklee College of Music. “Long lead magazines — like Vanity Fair, Wired, etc. — all plotted their issues out months in advance to accommodate for writing, editing, and printing.” Historically, an artist who wanted to get press coverage needed to announce the release of their album early enough to get space in those issues, their best chance for finding new fans.
But in the last 15 years, the album release cycle has shortened drastically because of the internet. Starting with Napster and Myspace, and carrying through the rise of social media and the streaming revolution, artists are no longer reliant on print media. In fact, now a long lead time can do more harm than good. “Campaigns are getting shorter and shorter,” said Judy Miller Silverman, the founder and CEO of Motormouth Media, a boutique PR firm that works with artists like Animal Collective and Sophie. “People are finally realizing that print media is a shot in the dark.”
“It was just the beginning of two more years of Swift.”
The internet, of course, is where Swift thrives at building hype. Last week, all of the star’s social media suddenly went dark. Her photos, her bios, her friends, her retweets, her avatar — all were gone, and in their place hung a suspense worth millions. “I knew this was it,” Sammie Carter, a 29-year-old Swift fan from Long Beach, California, said. “I knew she was prepping for another release.” Of course, Carter was right. Soon there was a glitching 10-second video of a snake on Swift’s Instagram, signifying the official start of another Taylor Swift release cycle.
In the Instagram comments, the fandom kicked into high gear, posting snake emojis and exclamation points, and all-caps screaming. “Everything she does is so purposeful and she’s very clever,” Carter said. “So I knew what she was up to.”
In the days that followed, there was the announcement of Reputation, with accompanying art. Then, she released “Look What You Made Me Do” at midnight on a Friday because (as of 2015) the Billboard Hot 100 chart counts streams and purchases from Friday to Friday, which put her song in the best position to potentially go No. 1. There was also the lyric video, a Good Morning America music video teaser, a UPS partnership, snake-themed merchandise, an MTV VMA premiere of the music video, two Target zines, and a Ticketmaster collaboration that encourages fans to buy merchandise and preorder the album in an effort to get tickets to a not-yet-announced tour.
It was just the beginning of two more years of Swift.
Nothing signified that the era of the long lead album release was coming to a close quite like Beyoncé’s 2013 surprise self-titled album, which sold 617,000 copies in the three days that counted toward its first week sales. Beyoncébroke the previous first-week record held by, of course, Swift’s 2012 album Red, which sold 456,000 units. “It was proven that a single released months in advance didn’t have to take place,” Philp said. “Fans didn’t need a tease, or a taste, of the music before release to convince them to buy the album.” But very few artists move more than 100,000 copies in their first week. And, of course, most artists can’t pull off a surprise drop. Beyoncé and Swift are in a totally different league, and their release cycles prove that: Swift’s PR plan is longer than any other artist’s, and Beyoncé’s is shorter.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear how outmoded this long-lead cycle is,” Berklee professor Howard said. “Taylor Swift is somewhat in a class of her own, and is not instructive to other artists.” Most artists are fumbling somewhat in the dark now. There is no one-size-fits-all promotion plan that will work in the digital age. “There aren’t rules to album releases anymore,” said Kristen Foster, a publicist at PMK-BNC who works with major artists such as Tim McGraw and Joan Jett.
“The longer the hype cycle, the longer Swift’s songs are played.”
Some artists still want mainstream print coverage, some want to get picked up by alternative and indie publications, and some just want to hand their music straight to their fans. “The rule book has gone out the window, and bands can decide what works best for their music and their fan base,” said Foster. There’s an excitement to the surprise drop that artists and fans love. In the past four years since Beyoncé’s self-titled album, Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead, Drake, and Rihanna have dropped surprise albums without promotional buildup. In the last year, two brilliant and beautiful albums by artists who aren’t superstars — Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and James Blake’s The Colour in Anything — were released unexpectedly. There is no data to prove whether those albums would have sold better with a longer hype cycle or not, but the surprise drop certainly has a dramatic urgency that gives artists a bit of attention they might not have gotten otherwise.
A half dozen experts on the changing music industry agreed that artists are increasingly opting for shorter cycles. Motormouth Media CEO Silverman said that for her clients, a happy medium is something like a two-week buildup, which gives fans enough time to get excited, but not so much time that the hype dies off before their album comes out.
So why, in 2017, when everyone else is compressing their album cycles into bite-size moments, is Taylor Swift maintaining a three-month hype cycle? Because she’s an artist, but she’s also a brilliant businessperson.
Silverman guessed Swift’s approach “has to do with some big money thing: sponsorship, show, commercial, event.” Philp put it more succinctly: “The whole purpose is monetization. How can they make as much money as possible in the beginning when the hype is at its peak? … The old model can still benefit the massive artists.”
Every stream, every video play, every radio turn makes Swift money, and she has made it clear in the last four years of her career that she will milk each album for every coin it’s worth. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in 2014, Swift argued that art should never be free, and that the music industry’s future was sunny because fans will pay for music. It was the first in a series of financially based anti-streaming proclamations Swift would make. Just after the release of 1989 in 2014, Swift pulled all of her music from Spotify, saying that the service did not appropriately value her art. (Spotify functions on direct deals for performers, and whatever deal Swift struck with the company to return her catalog to the service earlier this summer only applies to her work and has not been disclosed.)
While still on the 1989 tour in June 2015, Swift then turned her attention to Apple Music, writing a stern letter on her Tumblr that she would be withholding 1989 from the streaming service because of the service’s three-month free trial, which she said could be debilitating to young struggling artists. Apple retreated within 24 hours, saying they would pay artists for the three-month period. Swift then signed a deal with Apple Music (like Drake), giving them exclusive streaming rights for her entire catalog and performing commercials for the streaming service. In June, that deal ended, and her work returned to other streaming sites as well.
Streaming is still a fluctuating distribution system that most artists don’t have the clout or financial leeway to negotiate with, the way Swift has done consistently and successfully. After all, “Look What You Made Me Do” broke Spotify’s global first-day record with 8 million streams. The video broke Adele’s single-day Vevo play record with 30 million views. On the first three days of airplay alone, it hit the Billboard Top 100 at No. 77, and is expected to steal the No. 1 slot from the previously untouchable “Despacito.” The single is predicted to sell half a million downloads in its first week, which is more than any song has sold in the past six months. All of these record-breaking numbers create headlines, and all of those headlines add to the hype. The longer the hype cycle, the longer Swift’s songs are played in anticipation of the full album release — and the more financial opportunity to sell music.
In addition to the money, there are the accolades. Swift has long timed her releases to bring as many Grammys home as possible, releasing a single before the Sept. 30 deadline and an album thereafter, which allows her to be nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year one year for the first single and Album of the Year the next. For example, “Look What You Made Me Do” will be up for the 2018 Grammys, and Reputation (and possibly some future single) will be considered for the 2019 awards. Swift has been using this timeline since she released “Love Story,” the lead single from 2008’s Fearless (intentionally or not) on Sept. 12, 2008, and the album on Nov. 11. The Grammy year difference also keeps Swift in the public eye for longer than any other artist. The first single off 1989, “Shake It Off,” was released on Aug. 18, 2014. Swift gave her Album of the Year acceptance speech 549 days later on Feb. 15, 2016 — that’s 18 months of constant attention. (For comparison, Beyoncé released Lemonade on April 23, 2016, and lost the Grammy on Feb. 13, 2017, 296 days later.)
Swift’s fans have come to expect and love the long release cycle. “The Swift team is an expert on their fans,” Philp said. “Besides the [digital] data they can collect, they’re also out at every tour stop, watching how the fans react to a song, seeing if they take video and share it across networks, seeing what type of merch they like best, seeing the age of the fans.”
While Beyoncé fans love the drama of a surprise drop, the Swift fans who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they didn’t want one. “Although I’d be absolutely ecstatic and amazed that a new album would be there, I think I’d miss the excitement and buildup of a release date,” Chloe Irving, a 17-year-old Taylor Swift fan from the UK, said. Waiting three months for an album is, for Swifties, a pleasure and an expectation.
For nonfans, though, the cycle seems long because it absolutely is. But it also pays off. The extended release generates headlines, breaks records, and creates piles of money.
Swift is one of only a few artists who sell albums. Forbes named her the highest-paid artist of 2016, estimating that off her blowout 1989 tour and product endorsements, she probably made $170 million. Her system for new releases might be calculated and exhausting, and not trendy, but it absolutely works for her. ●
Kelsey McKinney is a writer based in Austin, Texas. She has written for The Atlantic, Slate, The Daily Beast and TimeOut New York. She likes her sandwiches fat and her novels slim and full of heartbreak.
On Sunday, 27-year-old rapper Logic took the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards to perform his hit single “1-800-273-8255,” which is the actual phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. As he rapped lyrics like “I want you to be alive / You don’t gotta die today,” he stood alongside survivors of suicide attempts and individuals who lost people in their lives to suicide.
“I just want to take a moment to thank you for giving me a platform to talk about something that mainstream media doesn’t want to talk about,” Logic said after his performance. “Mental health, anxiety, suicide, depression, and so much more that I talk about on this album.”
The performance was an emotional one, with people crying in the audience and onstage, and, according to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, it had an even greater impact than people saw on television. The hotline saw about a 50% increase in callers after the performance aired, and then again when MTV re-aired it later that night. There were a range of reasons why people called in, from being in crisis, to wanting to volunteer, to thanking the organization for what they’re doing.
“We even had an individual who called and he didn’t know what the number was,” Shari Sinwelski, the associate project director of the lifeline, told BuzzFeed News. “He thought maybe it was going to be a radio station or something, and so when he called and he realized what it was, he actually needed to talk to somebody. It’s interesting to think about those people who maybe would never have called in another situation.”
When Logic released “1-800-273-8255“ on April 28, the organization said it received the second highest daily call volume in its history (the first highest being the day that Robin Williams died in 2014). There was a 27% increase in calls when “1-800-273-8255” dropped, compared to their average volume on the same day of the week for the previous three weeks.
Sinwelski said that the lifeline wasn’t involved in the creative process behind Logic’s Billboard-charting song, but that the rapper did approach them about two weeks prior to its release to ask for permission to use the phone number as his song title.
“We’re always trying to get the word out about how to get help for people who are in suicidal crisis, so we thought it would be a really good collaboration,” she said.
Before the VMAs, Logic’s team got in touch with the lifeline because they wanted to involve suicide survivors in his performance. Lifeline connected Logic with a local Los Angeles crisis center that found people who were willing to participate.
Sinwelski was one of many onstage with Logic on Sunday night, and described it as a powerful. “I don’t think that in the history of suicide prevention we’ve ever had such a big moment in the spotlight,” she said.
“There’s a lot that we can learn from people who have been through a really dark place and said, ‘I’m still here, I’m still standing, and this is how i’ve done it,’” she added. “I think Logic had heard that message when we’d spoken to him in the past about trying to give that message of hope out there, that hope and healing can happen.”
Ten days before Logic performed “1-800-273-8255” at the VMAs, he also released a music video for the song, starring Don Cheadle, Matthew Modine, Coy Stewart from Are We There Yet?, and Nolan Gould from Modern Family. Since it dropped on Aug. 17, the video has been viewed nearly 17 million times.
“’1-800-273-8255′ was a really hard one to write, just for the simple fact that, like, it starts out so depressing, and I had to put myself in the mind state and in that mentality to write it,” Logic said in an interview with MTV News. (He was unavailable to be interviewed for this story.) “And honestly, I didn’t enjoy making the song because it was such a hard thing to do. But I enjoyed the outcome.”
Earlier this year, there were lots of conversations about the depiction of suicide in pop culture and whether or not fictional stories about suicide glamorize the act. Sinwelski believes it’s possible to portray a narrative about suicide without glorifying it, as long as creators follow media guidelines and read the research that’s been done on the subject matter.
What differentiates Logic’s song from other TV shows, films, and music, according to Sinwelski, is its message of hope.
“It’s not a bad thing if you’re having a difficult time — it’s just about trying to find a way to cope with that,” she said. “Hopefully, seeing a video like this and hearing a song like this will let them know, if they’re feeling overwhelmed or if they’re feeling like their life is not worth living, that there are people who are willing to listen and talk to them and try to help get them connected with some help.”
Amazon announced on Tuesday a discounted student plan on unlimited music streaming for $4.99 per month, the company’s latest effort to court young consumers.
The discount on music streaming, which is normally $7.99 for Prime members and is only available to verified students at degree-granting college or universities in the US and UK, comes shortly after the company launched its “instant pickup” program, which allows students at five college campuses to pick up select items (stocked at the locations) within “two minutes” of ordering from the Amazon app.
Students are an important demographic for the company. The aim of pickup programs was to target students, who are more likely to use Prime than older consumers, Ripley MacDonald, who runs Amazon’s student programs, told Bloomberg last August.
“On a college campus, you have all of your future customers in one place,” he said. “We graduate students into full-price prime memberships.”
Amazon did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
Brian T. Olsavsky, Amazon’s senior vice president and chief financial officer, told investors in an earnings call last year that “there’s a lot of different flavors of Prime,” including its student Prime membership, which is $49 a year and includes free two-day shipping.
“We are aggressively looking for a perfect Prime for everybody,” he added. “We know that, again, when customers try Prime, they like it, so it’s really just about getting them to try Prime and continuing to deliver great Prime benefits and great low prices and selection.”
Amazon did not disclose its Prime membership statistics in its most recent annual report. But Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, a consumer research company, estimated that the company has about 80 million Prime members spending on average about $1,300 per year, compared to about $700 per year for nonmembers.
It estimated that about 5–10% of those members have reduced-fee subscriptions like Amazon Student Prime.
If there’s one thing you know about Tayls, it’s that she loves going to the zoo on Sunday afternoons in September. If you tilt your head to the right and squint your eyes 13%, you notice it spells “zoo”! It’s so friggin’ cray because we all know the video dropped just DAYS before it was September… coincidence? NOT WITH TAYLSEY!
I know I don’t have a lot of time. If I may tell you a quick story. Recently, I was driving my daughter to school and she said to me, out of the blue, “Mama?” “Yes, baby?” She said, “I am the ugliest girl I know.” And I said, “Huh?” And she was like, “Yeah, I look like a boy with long hair.” And my brain went to, Oh my god, you are 6! Why? Where is this coming from? Who said this? Can I kick a 6-year-old’s ass? What? But I didn’t say anything. Instead, I went home and I made a power point presentation for her. And, in that presentation, were androgynous rock stars and artists that live their truth, are probably made fun of every day of their lives, and carry on, and wave their flag, and inspire the rest of us. These are artists like Michael Jackson, David bowie, Freddie Mercury, Annie Lennox, Prince, Janis Joplin, and George Michael, Elton John — so many artists.
It was, her eyes glazed over. But then I said, “You know, I really want to know why you feel this way about yourself.” She said, “I look like a boy.” I said, “What do you think I look like?” She said, “Well you are beautiful.” I was like, “Well, thanks.” But, I said, “When people make fun of me, it’s, that’s what they use. They say that I look like a boy, or I am too masculine, too many opinions, my body is too strong.” And I said to her, “Do you see me growing my hair?” She said, “No mama.” I said, “Do you see me changing my body?” “No, mama.” “Do you see me changing the way I present myself to the world?” “No, ma.” “Do you see me selling out arenas all over the world?” “Yes, mama.” “That’s right. So, baby, girl, we don’t change, we take the gravel and the shell and we make a pearl. We help other people to change so that they can see more kinds of beauty.”
And to all of the artists here, I am so inspired by all of you. Thank you for being your true selves. And for lighting the way for us. I am so inspired by you guys. There is so much rad shit happening now in music, and keep doing it. Keep shining. For the rest of us to see. And you, my darling girl, are beautiful. And I love you. Thank you, MTV. This is a really special night. Thank you, Ellen [DeGeneres], I couldn’t love you more. Thank you, guys. Good night.