Three Simple Lessons Everyone In The Music Industry Should Learn From Taylor Swift


When I want a good laugh to start the day after a music awards show the night prior, I make an Internet stop at the "musicians" area on the Nashville Craigslist. Invariably Taylor Swift will have won big, prompting a discussion among several Craigslisters about how untalented she is and how she so doesn't deserve her success.
The implication is clear that the Craigslisters are the ones with real talent, that if life were fair they'd be the ones winning the awards. They rant endlessly about how Taylor obtained a recording contract only because her Dad bought her way in.
When I'm finished wondering why these people aren't out pursuing their own deal instead of crying to strangers on Craigslist, I usually make a little rebuttal post just to stir things up, the gist being perhaps we could all learn a couple lessons from Taylor:
Lesson #1: Talent is a great thing, but talent with financial backing and business acumen attached wins out
Look, music can be art and sometimes art meets with commercial success but the music business is a business, not a talent show. The sooner you "get" that the sooner you'll be able to aim your efforts properly and achieve your goal. Certainly we're all out there recording, promoting and selling talent but at the end of the day there have to be profits or the party's over.
At big companies big sales are needed to keep the lights on and give the company strength against competition. If putting a pretty face on a stage sells 600% more tickets over an arguably more talented but physically less attractive choice, the good businessperson has little, if any, choice but to go with the bigger sales. And if someone is backing an act financially enough to eliminate the risk and cost of launching an act in a business where the majority of newly signed artists lose money until they're quietly dropped from the roster, the businessperson does the smart thing and runs with it.
It's easy to sit in your living room comfy chair and postulate that decisions in the music business should be made completely on artistic merit. But you're not the one trying to meet a payroll, bankroll recordings, pay utility bills, and more. If you were occupying the executive chair you'd soon be making the same decisions as the industry guy sitting in it now you're dissing.
I produced a vocal session yesterday with a singer who has a very successful indie career and is in the middle of trying to seal his big label deal. We discussed what it takes to be signed these days, he being fresh from a full day of meetings with "money people and lawyers" the day prior. He said, "Walk in the door of Sony with $1 million for initial recording costs and promotion and an additional $2 million to be used if you get some traction with radio and retail and you're instantly moved to the top 2-3% of the hundreds of people hoping to get a deal." If you don't have a father who owns a huge Christmas tree farm like Taylor's dad or a rich relative, that money can be pledged by investors.
I've never attempted to verify whether or not Taylor's father actually gave the record company a blank check for initial recording costs and/or promotion or not as "in-the-knows" on Music Row claim, I don't care. If he did, man, more power to him! To paint that move as some sinister backdoor deal that tarnishes Taylor and what she's achieved is both mean spirited and zombie unintelligent. But what a great story about a father's love for his daughter and his total belief in her ability! I only hope I would be in a position to do something similar for my daughter one day. Hmm...Taylor Swift made $45 million in just the past year alone? Unfair? Lucky? Here's all I have to say about it: That was one shrewd investment there, Dad, fantastic call!
Lesson #2 Differentiate yourself and know your market
Business startup gurus say not to begin a new business until you can clearly identify the niche you're serving and unless you're offering the customer something different from the competition. So many singers and songwriters with talent say they want a career in music but have no clue about whom their true customer is and make no effort to differentiate themselves, most don't even think in those terms. Taylor and her businessman father believed that she could voice the issues of people her age through her music in a unique way. Guess what? They were right. To teen girls Taylor's lyrics are manna from the heavens, they're eating it up.
Lesson #3 Life is not fair, when you get your break, be ready!
There's a misconception, I think, among nearly every aspiring artist or songwriter that if they just had an opportunity to be "heard" they'd be a star or hit songwriter in no time. That may be true or it may not. Recordings are released in this town nearly every day, some with huge promotional efforts behind them, yet the majority of acts fail to get any real traction with the public. Whether Taylor's Dad greased the skids or not, when she was introduced to her target market she was prepared to take advantage. She had the desire, the likeable personality, the songs and performing skills to turn a little spark into a roaring flame that shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Of course it's worth noting that at least a few of the folks claiming she doesn't deserve her fame on CL can likely barely pull off a passable cover of Lynnard Skynnard's "Free Bird" and haven't written a new song since 1997. But remember, they unilaterally decided life should be fair, do judge them on their artistic merits, okay? Oh, wait, maybe someone already did.
Swift built a huge fan base on MySpace.com early in her career, surely another huge factor in her current success. This is the Internet age. You can expose your talents to the masses on YouTube.com or Reverb Nation or on your own website. If you're as talented as you claim then surely you'll be huge in no time. If you can't build a fan base for your live act through the Internet what makes you think your act will get fans elsewhere? And if you don't believe in yourself enough to invest a little money and a lot of time in yourself, why would anyone else invest in you? So love her or hate her one thing's for sure: Taylor's probably writing a new song somewhere while she's mentally computing how many thousands of dollars she'll get for it in her first royalty check. She's pushing her career forward, not worrying about people talking smack on CL. Even worse, complaining about "the unfairness of it all" is a waste of valuable time that does nothing to better your skills.