How music piracy gave us nonstop Taylor Swift

I’m not a fan of Taylor Swift; but I can’t entirely ignore her, either, as omnipresent as she is in the media and in our current popular culture. Taylor Swift stands practically alone among under-40 solo vocalists. (More on the reasons for this shortly.)

The result is that there is an excess demand for all things Taylor Swift, and that makes her fans ripe targets for scammers. Organized scalpers have cornered the market for Taylor Swift live performance tickets throughout the country, bidding up prices far beyond the original Ticketmaster levels. 

One interviewed University of Texas student called the secondary market prices “very exploitive”. No argument there. But there’s another problem lurking in the background, beyond the simple greed of the moment. It began about twenty years ago, on file sharing sites on the Internet. 

Ticket scalping: an old problem, but not like this

Gen Z understandably sees ticket scalping as a new problem; it is actually a very old one. People have been speculatively purchasing event tickets and reselling them at an upcharge since at least the 1970s. 

History shows, moreover, that secondary markets for concert tickets are difficult to prevent. There is always someone willing to pay an inflated price. 

But maybe not the kind of inflated prices that we’re seeing for Taylor Swift tickets. According to several news reports, tickets are going for $23,000 in some cities. A $700 ticket is now considered a relative “bargain”. 

Exploitive, indeed.

Why so much Taylor Swift, and so little of anyone else?

Why is the demand for Taylor Swift tickets, in particular, so high? Why would anyone want to pay so much to see one particular musical act?

Maybe the problem lies in the 21st-century music market, and its lack of choice for big-name, commercial music. 

There have always been disproportionately popular bands and vocalists. In the 1980s, they were Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and a handful of others.

But that’s the point: a handful of others. What is unique about Taylor Swift, from a pop music history perspective, is her degree of domination over youth music. And she’s been in that position for years now.

If these were normal musical times, there would be four or five Taylor Swifts, at least: popular musical acts who are mostly followed by the young, but are household names to everyone else. All vying for market share. 

Why is Taylor Swift so saliently popular? Is it really because her music is so great? I’ve listened to it, and—I’m sorry to break this to you, folks—but Taylor Swift is grossly overrated. 

This isn’t to say that her music is bad. It’s actually pretty good, for what it is. But it is no better than the music of past solo female vocalists like Pat Benatar, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Tracy Chapman, or (my personal favorite from the 1990s) Jewel. 

But here’s the difference: from the 1960s through the 1990s, the music industry habitually developed a diverse range of musical talent.

Listen to a sampling of the aforementioned solo female vocalists from the 1980s and 1990s: they are all quite different in style and theme. Jewel’s music was very different from Whitney Houston’s, though they were both active in the 1990s and both household-name popular. 

Even my grandparents, back in the day, had heard of Whitney Houston. My parents had heard of Jewel and Pat Benatar. They’d heard of Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.

Now fast-forward to 2022, and Taylor Swift stands alone, occupying an outsized position in the music market that is far out of proportion to her originality or talent. 

This is because the music industry no longer develops such a wide range of musical acts. It isn’t that there is no second Whitney Houston or Pat Benatar out there. It’s just that she never got a record contract, like she might have in the old days. Ergo, no dollars to promote her. 

The long-tail effects of music piracy

So what happened? About twenty years ago, peer-to-peer file exchange services like Napster completely changed the economics of the music industry as we knew it. 

Yes, another thing that the Millennials ruined, I’m afraid. 

It began as outright, brazen piracy. Using services like Napster, college kids ripped songs from their CDs, and uploaded them to the Internet, where they could be downloaded for free by anyone.

The broad consensus was that it was the music industry’s responsibility to “adapt” to the new climate of piracy. Record companies responded by pushing 99-cent downloads instead of albums. Then, the real race to the bottom came, in the form of streaming services.

That economic structure simply didn’t support the broad array of commercial acts that thrived in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. 

Four decades of a thriving music industry, wiped out by online piracy and its downstream effects. If no one gets paid, then eventually, nothing gets made. 

This is why we don’t have another Whitney Houston or Pat Benatar; but it’s also why we don’t have another Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard, or AC/DC. 

Gen Z musicians: a lot of talent, but fewer opportunities for real commercial success

Not that there’s any shortage of young musical talent, mind you. In fact, there is probably more raw, technical musical talent among Generation Z than there ever was among Generation X (my generation) or the Baby Boomers. 

Most talented young musicians are surviving as cover acts on venues like YouTube. They make money from Patreon, tee shirt sales, and Google Adsense.

But the creation of a major commercial music act (an act that could, perhaps, compete with the likes of Taylor Swift) requires capital; and you can only get so much from a Patreon account, or from hawking tee shirts online. 

This is why, in 2022, we have nonstop Taylor Swift, and not much of anyone else.

The sad truth is that the file sharers of 2000 reduced the opportunities available for musicians—and fans—of 2022. Turn-of-the-century music piracy was supposed to make popular music “free”. Instead it made popular music far more limited, and far more expensive, than it should be.