Taylor Swift & the Battle for Free Music

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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.

-Taylor Swift, Wall Street Journal op-ed

So there’s been a lot going around the Internet about Taylor Swift and her decision to pull all of her music, except for one song, from Spotify. Basically, she’s trying to say that Spotify, because of its streaming service, doesn’t pay musicians and singers enough for their art. (For information, apparently, they pay less than one cent per play.)

As a poet and as an author of a thesis on the intersect between music, poetry and art, I couldn’t ignore Swift’s comments or their possible ramifications without giving my opinion.

Now, putting aside the argument that Swift makes $55 million per year, or that her net worth is over $200 million and she isn’t exactly a starving artist, let’s examine a few quick points.

1) If you argue that music is art, then you have to abide by the rules of art. From the beginning of time, art has been undervalued. There’s a reason for the term “starving artist” that I referenced earlier. How many authors, poets and writers died before any of their art became famous? How many painters, musicians or composers never made enough money to put bread on the table? The reason for this is that art by its very nature is something that all people should have access to. When you create art, you are opening the window of your heart and soul, and letting out something that will affect other people, something that others can see, understand and experience. Those who truly create art do so purely to share an experience or feeling they have with the world. Not to make money, not to gain fame, not to exclusively share with only those who will pay. Did Michelangelo charge admission to the Sistine Chapel? I think not.

2) By the above definitions of art, we can conclude that what many, in fact most, musicians today create is not truly art. To say that all music is art therefore is incorrect. In fact, the very first statement Swift makes, abbreviated, is that “Music is art, and art is rare.” According to this logic, music is rare. But hundreds of Shawty-centric, bootylicious songs beg to disagree. Music–in its basest, simplest and least artistic form–abounds. Therefore, music is not rare. And music is not always art.

art: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

3) Art should be free, unless people choose to give money to it. I know this is a bold claim. I know dozens of people who will contend it with the old, “But you want to get paid for your work! How dare you say artists shouldn’t be paid for their work.” But let’s be real. The people who do some of the most valuable work in the world are the most underpaid. Teachers. Social workers. Nurses. Artists. The people who make the most money? Athletes. Celebrities. Investors. CEOs. The things that feed our souls are the things we pay least for. The things that feed our greed, materialism, jealousy, egos–those are the things we pay for without blinking.

The real issue here is that Taylor Swift has music and art confused. She is not the starving artist we mentioned at the beginning of this post. She cannot claim, as a fine artist could, that she truly cares that people (her fans, in this case) can enjoy her art and are able to experience it, no matter who they are or how much money they have. She cannot say with truth that all music is art, or that all music is rare. And she cannot charge admission for a Mona Lisa that is, in truth, a cat meme.

The real issue here is that Taylor Swift is not an artist, at least not in the sense of Michelangelo, Maya Angelou, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson or Van Gogh. She is, and only is, a celebrity.

And the “art” created by celebrities is paid for, repeatedly, at concerts, at movie theaters, in merchandising. The argument against streaming online music services doesn’t help true artists, those who may never become famous until after their death. It doesn’t help independent musicians, as this article adeptly points out. It truly only helps those who are already making millions. Those like Swift, who, despite their $200 million net worth, still scrounge for royalties.

What are your thoughts? Should music streaming services like Spotify charge more money and pay artists more or should they cease to exist altogether? Do you agree that all music is art?

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