Taylor Swift announced last week that she had signed to Universal Music Group, where her upcoming albums will live under the umbrella of Republic Records, the imprint that is home to fellow pop megastars like Ariana Grande, Drake, Post Malone, and the Weeknd. Swift’s decision to leave behind independent label Big Machine Records (which was distributed through Republic) wasn’t too shocking. What sparked headlines was the solid she did for other artists as part of the deal: Now, thanks to Swift, when UMG divests from the music-streaming giant Spotify, in which it has a small but valuable stake, it will pay a good chunk of the proceeds to artists on its roster.
As one of the world’s biggest pop stars, Swift had maximum bargaining power as she sought a new label, and she used that position to get better deals for other artists. When the news emerged, the progressive policy wonk Matt Bruenig tweeted, perhaps a bit jokingly, that Swift is a “labor radical.” In fact, that’s exactly right. For years, Swift has loudly defended the rights of laborers in her industry from the imperatives of capital—and matched her rhetoric with action.
The specifics of the Spotify arrangement require some background: Back in 2008, when Spotify was first licensing music to stream from the major labels (Universal, Sony, and Warner) along with the Merlin Network, the largest collective of independent labels, each company got a small chunk of the company. After Spotify went public in April, these labels began selling their stock.
Merlin, which had the smallest share, sold off everything. Warner Music Group, according to Rolling Stone, got $504 million for its shares, but it counted the money owed against artists’ recording advances, which allowed the label to hold onto most of the money, since a majority of artists never make back more than their initial advance. Sony sold half of its shares for $768 million, and it paid artists from that pot without counting it against advances. Swift asked Universal Music Group to do the same and now whenever the record label sells its shares, the artists will get a small percentage of it back without it counting against what they still owe the label thanks to advances.
Swift’s shrewd contractual negotiations aren’t the first time she’s acted as a spokesperson for scores of musicians. Back in 2014, she argued in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that Spotify’s business model devalued music, since it pays a much lower royalty than physical or digital record sales; she pulled her catalog from the service later that year. It was a move that critics viewed as a privilege only afforded to artists in Swift’s tax bracket. What they didn’t consider was that by withholding her labor, she positioned herself to extract concessions from the company. She formed a picket line—though without support from the rest of the industry, she eventually turned back to Spotify in 2017.
The singer again took up an industrywide complaint when, before the launch of Apple Music in 2015, she wrote an open letter to the company arguing that it needed to pay artists royalties during the initial free three-month trial. Her now-deleted Tumblr post stated: “This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field … but will not get paid for a quarter of a year’s worth of plays on his or her songs.” Before Swift’s statement, the American Association of Independent Music, a trade association of independent labels, cautioned against Apple’s position, which was asking to stream their music for free. Publicly, at least, Swift’s statement got much of the credit when Apple ultimately reversed its decision and paid up during its trial period.
The mainstream record industry is one where the power of collectivized labor is fairly weak. The American Federation of the Musicians, which mostly represented classical and jazz musicians, held tremendous power over the business in the 1940s after a successful wave of strikes extracted massive concessions from record labels to boost artists’ pay. Swift’s actions share the same instinct as that movement: If a corporation, whether it’s a tech company or a record label, is going to greatly profit off of musicians, then they deserve better treatment.
Then and now, it’s not an easy task. As Michael James Roberts tells it in his book Tell Tchaikovsky the News, the AFM eventually lost its influence amid racial and class strikes between the union and the new generation of musical laborers, rock ‘n’ roll artists. Though major label artists are eligible for health care and benefits with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, rank-and-file musicians’ concerns often go unheard by record labels—and as the manner of distribution has shifted onto the web, their position has arguably only weakened.
Until she waded into the Tennessee U.S. Senate race this fall, Swift has never been comfortable dabbling in national politics. But speaking up for the rights of musicians is where she stands almost uniquely to the left of many of her high-wattage peers. When he launched the streaming competitor Tidal, Jay-Z might’ve played up a narrative of musicians taking back power, but he meant it only for the 0.1 percent of artists that stood on the stage next to him. Even Beyoncé, a partial owner of Tidal and someone with nearly unrivaled music industry clout, doesn’t use her position to tilt the scales in favor of smaller acts.
Perhaps Universal Music Group already thought about giving its Spotify money back to artists and Swift’s demand was just good PR. Even if that was the case, though, Swift again showed musicians, who might be more distrustful of management than any other American workforce, that it’s never too late to ask for better treatment.