Moneybox

Taylor Swift Is a Capitalist

You can feel annoyed and betrayed by her ticketing debacle.

Taylor Swift with an up-do, bangs, and a shart cat eye silhouetted on a motion blurred dollar bill.
She’s a business, man. Photo illustration by Slate. Photoz by Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images and Ruslan Lytvyn/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

In 2004, Scott Borchetta received a package from a young country artist looking for a record deal. Along with the song demos, “there was an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog,” Borchetta recalled in an interview with Inc. magazine. “And I’m like, well you don’t see that everyday.”

Borchetta is the record executive credited with discovering one of the biggest musical artists of all time. But before she’d even released her first single, Swift had modeled for the preppy clothing brand. In the catalog, she’d bookmarked a picture of herself holding a guitar and wiping her eye with a tissue (presumably a nod to her song “Teardrops on My Guitar,” which would be released a couple years later). “She was a very attractive girl,” Borchetta told Inc., noting that she looked older than her 14 years, and therefore had a shot at making it in the country music market.

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Make it she did. Today, as seemingly countless Swift fans are left without tickets to the upcoming tour that will showcase her different “eras”—from curly-haired and Southern accent Taylor to rainbow-gay Pride Taylor—we’re faced with the least fun version of Swift yet: Capitalist Taylor. So far, the bulk of the outrage has fallen on Ticketmaster, the monopolistic concert-and-ticketing conglomerate, while Swift has received comparably less opprobrium, perhaps because of the intimate-seeming fandom relationship she has cultivated over her career. But as that A&F catalog showed all those years ago, Swift has always been one for cultivating brand synergy. Fans, finally noticing this, seem heartbroken.

Last month, Cosmopolitan deemed Swift “Scrooge McDuck–levels of wealthy,” citing an estimate that put her pre-Midnights net worth at $570 million. Her 2018 stadium tour for Reputation is the highest-grossing U.S. tour on record. In 2019, she inked a multiyear deal with Capital One, just ahead of the release of Lover. Her single “ME!” soundtracked a commercial for a 4 percent cash-back card, and Capital One cardholders had the privilege of purchasing a “one-of-a-kind Taylor Swift t-shirt,” which came bundled with a digital version of the album.

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For the “Eras” tour, one way to boost your chances to score an entry code for the presale hunger games was to have bought a lot of Swift merch (for example: a wall clock interface that is designed to be hung with four Midnights CDs, sold separately). (Update, 11/21: While the amount of merchandise purchased was explicitly connected to place in line for the earlier Reputation tour, the process by which loyal fans were offered “boosts” was more mysterious this time.) She also promised a special “Eras” tour presale for Capital One cardholders, which led to several pieces of service journalism urging Swifties to take out a line of credit.

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Not that it may have helped them much. The idea was that the two presales were going to give dedicated fans the opportunity purchase tickets ahead of the general public (and scalpers, too). It would have been a mistake to assume that the process of logging onto Ticketmaster at the scheduled time with your code in hand would allow you to calmly exchange money for goods and services—this was Swift’s first tour in four years, after all. But the process was distinctly harrowing. Fans experienced a website that could not accommodate the traffic, and wait times of hours in a digital queue.

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Ahead of the Capital One presale, a couple friends and I carefully strategized how much we would pay for tickets, and even concocted back-up plans for what we would do if we couldn’t get enough for everyone in our group. When we finally got to a screen showing us a stadium seating chart, we were offered just two “Karma is My Boyfriend” packages for $755 each, well out of our price range. (What made the packages a couple hundred dollars better than just plain floor seats? Reportedly, they come with extras like a VIP entrance to the stadium, an “Eras” tour tote, and a “crowd-free VIP shopping option.”) Not that we could have bought them anyway; within moments, one of them was gone from the screen. But maybe they had left the ether before the light from the computer even had time to reach our eyes in the first place—a colleague reported seeing tons of available tickets, only to spend 45 minutes clicking to find over and over that his selection was unavailable. And there wouldn’t be, as we had been promised, an opportunity to try again at a sale for the general public—Ticketmaster had to cancel that due to a lack of inventory.

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Ticketmaster, which is essentially the only way to buy tickets for many concerts and sports events at big venues, was the villain of this whole debacle, everyone decided. “To try and fight Ticketmaster in 2022 is to try and wage a war against God,” wrote Kelsey McKinney in Defector. In Slate, Ron Knox observed that the mess had reignited calls from politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the Ticketmaster’s monopoly to be broken up—and perhaps could even radicalize Swifties themselves.

Slowly, it seemed to dawn on fans how much Swift herself stood to benefit even from this crappy ticket-buying experience. A viral TikTok features a woman sitting despondently in her car beneath text declaring that the whole debacle “was Taylor’s capitalistic circus on full display…I’m going to say I’m officially turned off by Taylor.” In the New Republic, Timothy Noah also ultimately lays the “blame” on Swift, in two ways. There’s the fact that she is mind-bendingly popular. On Tuesday, she sold 2 million tickets, Noah writes—“more than any previous act—Enrico Caruso, Rudy Vallee, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Michael Jackson—ever sold in a single day.” Then, there’s the issue of dynamic pricing. Swift, like many artists, consented to allow Ticketmaster to raise the prices on seats in response to demand. This isn’t necessarily as evil as it sounds, reasons Noah: Would you rather be price-gouged by Stubhub, or by Swift herself? I guess, sure, run me over, Taylor. And if tickets were cheaper, that might be a public good, but it would still leave a core problem: They would be in even more demand, and therefore less abundant.

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On Friday, Swift released a statement on Instagram noting that she’s “trying to figure out how this situation can be improved moving forward” and that while she’s glad 2.4 million people were able to get tickets, “it really pisses me off that a lot of them feel like they went through several bear attacks to get them.” Ultimately, the number of Swift tickets available in this world is limited to how long she is willing to stand in front of a crowd and sing. I can only imagine that she might be sitting among her riches and, at some point, feel a little bit of exhaustion from the sheer number of people who are rioting angrily because they will not be able to get a visual on her this spring. The Beatles gave up on touring after six years; Swift has been doing it for more than double that. She could quit and be justified in doing it. And she’s done some laudable things over the years, like using her clout to help artists get some money when their songs are streamed during Apple Music’s free trial period, as David Turner described in Slate in 2018.

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But it’s still the fans she’s extracting money from, and for some of us, being asked to pay hundreds of dollars to see her live (if we’re very lucky!) feels disorienting, especially when our parasocial relationships with her can run so deep.  My first encounter with Swift’s music was when I was 16. A friend from a summer camping trip sent me a mix CD containing other musical acts such as the Jonas Brothers—and one song by Taylor Swift, “Stay Beautiful,” in which she hopes a love interest will wind up with her, but wishes him goodwill even if he doesn’t. The lyrics were just better than anything else that had been offered to me by artists my age. I looked her up and was hooked.

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I can accept that in the following decade-plus, this woman has simply become too popular for me to see her tour right now. I understand that she should earn money in exchange for her work. And Swift certainly did not invent the idea of being a spokesmodel for goods and services. But nonetheless it kind of sucks to be turning over the poetry of Midnights, while Capitalist Taylor is taking the opportunity to try to sell me a credit card and yet another shirt.

This summer, I got an email from Taylor Nation, Swift’s company. It wasn’t announcing new music, or alerting me of tour dates. It was letting me know about a Memorial Day sale on branded towels. Yes, my favorite poet was sending me a junk mailer: If I bought two towels, I could get 10 percent off.

“It goes without saying that I’m extremely protective of my fans,” she writes in her statement Friday. Actually, I think we can say that she’s not. And that’s fine. It’s just the entertainment business. It was never personal.

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