No, this isn’t going to be some cheesy-as-all-get-out “hold onto your dreams” article. We’ve all heard that a squillion times, and it’s not particularly helpful. (It IS actually relevant, but as practical advice it has limited value.) What we’re going to talk about instead are the “not quite as obvious” lessons that can be learned from Ms. Swift’s career – and, indeed, from the careers of other stadium-filling acts.
There are a lot of folks who don’t want to learn these lessons, and it’s understandable as to why. It’s much easier to believe in comfortable, but false mythology about the music business than to have the anvil of truth dropped on your head. Ultimately, though, putting one’s hope in a false myth is not a good career move.
I’ll also mention that my experience has told me that, yes, there are true myths…but that’s for an article about philosophy and not the music industry.
Luck IS A Factor
What I’ve read suggests that, contrary to the opinions of folks suffering from “sour grapes” or “it’s all just a bunch of A&R-spun crap,” Taylor Swift worked LIKE MAD to get where she is. She’d sing at Karaoke contests to get opening spots for bigger acts, and when she would lose, she would just keep going back until she won.
She wrote songs, appeared wherever she could, and worked with artist-dev folks.
And she kept grinding at it all, relentlessly.
Here’s the thing, though: She was lucky.
She was lucky that she was being “eaten alive” by the ambition to perform. She was lucky that her parents were willing to support that ambition. She was lucky that her parents had the resources to help her along. She was lucky that she met the right people. She was lucky that her luck changed at EXACTLY the right time for her to be a key player in the “country-pop-rock” crossover that burst into full-bloom. She was lucky that teenage girls actually listen to the country genre, and she was lucky that her songs ended up resonating with them.
Lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky…
Taylor Swift’s hard work doesn’t invalidate her luck. Her luck doesn’t invalidate her hard work. They’re inextricably intertwined for her, and luck-and-work are inextricably intertwined for you, me, and all the rest of us.
Hard work and tenaciousness are the tools necessary to help you be “in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, playing the right material, to the right crowd,” but with anything that involves the tastes and opinions of humans, luck will always be a significant factor.
And, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, that’s enough to raise the head of the kid who just bought a guitar, and humble the gaze of a performer as massively successful as Taylor Swift.
Virtuosity Isn’t The Point
I once read a forum post by a fellow audio-human (a much more successful and well known audio-human than myself) that was in reference to Ms. Swift. It went like this: “The guitar is just for show. So is she.”
My internal reaction to that line was, “HAHAHHAHAHAHA that’s was a pretty good burn, yeah…holy CRAP you’re a JERK.”
What brought me around to disliking the zinger was my complete exhaustion with people who label successful acts that they don’t like as “talentless, manufactured crap.” They may actually be manufactured. They may be carefully presented. They may have a media team that tries to sanitize everything. Their shows may be “everything on rails so that it’s all perfect at all times” affairs. You may not like any of that.
But if it didn’t require a certain kind of talent to be a functional part of all that, then everybody would do it.
Taylor Swift isn’t Steve Vai. Or George Lynch. Or Joe Satriani. Or Slash. Or Yngwie Malmsteen. Or Eric Johnson. Or Herman and Sam from Dragonforce.
And it doesn’t matter one tiny little bit, because being a mind-numbingly brilliant instrumentalist isn’t what she’s all about. Heck, being a socks-explodingly masterful vocalist isn’t even what it’s all about.
What she’s all about is writing material (and putting on a show) that resonates with tens of thousands of screaming fans. She plays guitar well enough to write her songs, do the occasional “one woman and one guitar” section at shows, and get her ideas across to an arranger. She has good enough vocal power and intonation to make records and keep live audiences hooked. That’s plenty – and she is REALLY good at fitting into her place with it.
So, yeah, you may be a much better instrumentalist than Ms. Swift. You might even be a better singer in terms of range and tonality. That’s great, but if it doesn’t bring people out to your shows and help you sell merch…who cares? Nobody gives a rat’s dirty buttocks how brilliant you are at weird chord voicings if the songs aren’t fun for them. There isn’t some invisible group of “music adjudicators” who award success points based on how much time you’ve spent practicing. If you think that knowing everything there is to know about instrumental execution and music theory automatically grants you an audience, then you are probably going to be unhappy.
Don’t get me wrong, though!
If you love your instrument to death, and want to become a master at it, YOU ABSOLUTELY SHOULD. Practice 18 hours a day if you want to. That’s fantastic, and I applaud it – but please realize that becoming a virtuoso is primarily a thing that you are doing for yourself. Being technically skilled at music is really good for you, because it means that you have more flexibility to take part in a wider range of projects. (Being involved in a wider range of projects helps you have more luck, by the way.) Skillful execution, by itself, rarely brings show attendees out in force, though. If you have to pick and choose the skills to cultivate, then put entertainment and engagement above technical ability. If you want to play to niche audiences that are interested in technical mastery of your instrument, and you can find those audiences, then great. If you want to play to huge crowds that just want to have fun and don’t care if the playing is transcendent, then your focus should be somewhere else.
Taylor Swift is proof that a professional performer has to play well enough to put on a show in the context that works for their audience…and that’s it. Anything beyond that is a nice extra, but not strictly required.
Marketing Is For The Audience You Already Have
When Ms. Swift (or her media team) Tweet, or Facebook, or put something on her website, or buy a traditional-media ad, or write a press release, it gets a big response. People talk about it. People share it. Ticket sales are driven up.
And it’s not really because these folks know marketing strategies that you don’t. Sure, they know how to be tactful, effective, and exciting when breaking a bit of news, but that probably only accounts for about 5% of their success. The other 95% is that a whole bunch of people are actually listening to them, ravenous to hear what they have to say.
That’s who marketing is for: The people that you either know are listening to you, or who you are VERY sure will want to listen to you. Marketing is NOT for people who aren’t interested. It doesn’t conjure fans out of thin air.
“Now, hold on!” You might be saying. “Taylor Swift got millions of fans from marketing and radio play. You’ve got it all wrong, Danny.” Fair point – but let’s dig a little deeper. Maybe those droves of screaming, teenage girls weren’t specifically fans of Taylor Swift before the marketing and radio play…
…but they were ready to be. As such, they fall under the “who you are VERY sure will want to listen to you” bit from up there. I’m not an insider, so I don’t know the precise story, but here’s how it looked from the outside: Ms. Swift, and the folks who believed in her, got her songs on country radio. Their pitch was probably something like: “Taylor sings these songs about country themes in a country style, and she’s young, so she’ll speak to those teenage listeners that you want to keep listening to your station.” Yes, this is marketing, and yes, these folks were speaking to people that they figured were ready to listen – the radio programming directors.
Not the general public! The actual audience that mattered at that exact moment.
Some number of those programming directors gave Taylor a shot, and everybody discovered something: There were indeed a lot of young girls that listened to country radio, and they were indeed just aching for someone their age to sing songs that they could relate to. (Remember that “luck” thing I talked about? This is an example.) Someone also realized that there was a lot of “pop” crossover potential in Ms. Swift’s tunes, and so they remixed some of the songs for that market. Taylor Swift was the right thing, at the right time, for those audiences.
Blammo! A huge star was born. People wanted to hear more, and they wanted to know more, and be in the loop, and not miss anything. If there was some mention of Taylor Swift in their local paper, they were ready to devour it. If there was something new on her website, they would look for it. They followed Taylor on Twitter. They “liked” her Facebook page. When Taylor Swift’s marketing team talks about a new release, or a huge concert event, they talk to these people. That’s who the message is for, and that’s what the message is for: To get the word out to the people who are listening. The people who are listening then spread the word, which creates more listeners.
And of course the marketing team uses traditional media. Taylor Swift has mass appeal, so traditional media campaigns make sense. That’s what traditional media is for – to send a message that appeals to a very large audience. “Old-media” campaigns help to cover all the bases, and they’re worthwhile…because Ms. Swift’s marketing team can be very sure that a good number of those consumers are listening to them.
The takeaway from all this is that your marketing efforts are best spent on the people you’re already connected to. I run into so many folks that erroneously believe in the idea that just “making more noise” is the key to marketing themselves. They think that marketing is about magically turning people who don’t and won’t care into people who do. It isn’t. It’s about drawing in the people who you already know, and helping them experience so much enjoyment that they can’t help but to spread the word. It’s about identifying who’s listening, and who’s ready to listen, and playing to them – literally and metaphorically.
So, you might not listen to Taylor Swift. You might not even like Taylor Swift. But you can learn a lot about how this business works by thinking critically about what fuels her career.