I’ve always wondered what would’ve happened had Taylor Swift’s first re-recorded album, “Fearless (Taylor's Version),'' been released as a non-fungible token (NFT).
If you’re unfamiliar, in 2019, preeminent pop-country musician Taylor Swift declared war against record executive Scooter Braun. He was withholding the masters (i.e., original recordings of her songs) of her first six studio albums, so she fought back by re-recording her own songs.
Aziz Alangari is a marketing associate at Wachsman, a PR firm.
She first re-published her second studio album, “Fearless,” through her record company and asked fans to listen again on streaming platforms. The move was a way to declare her independence from Braun – and as an artist.
This is a classic tale of the power imbalance in the music industry, and goes far in explaining the most talked about use case for music NFTs: connecting fans and artists. With crypto, middlemen like Braun have much less power over artists like Swift from the start.
NFTs are like signatures for digital media, etched onto a blockchain. They’re a way to conclusively show who owns what online, and also give a unique digital identity to infinitely reproducible files.
“Taylor’s Version” is more or less identical to Braun’s original, except for its purpose. Swift urged fans to rebuy or stream music they may have already owned, because she was waging war against an exploitative music industry under the veneer of being personally victimized by Braun.
And it worked. “Taylor’s Version,” according to Billboard, earned more "album units" in its first week of release than Braun’s version had in total that year. It became the first re-recorded album to ever reach number one on the Billboard 200 chart.
Swift, like many modern-day celebrities, has a lot of influence over her fans. Her ability to sell albums and successfully advertise products has made her a multi-millionaire. But now, decades into the social media age, there’s a growing realization that the relationship between celebrities and followers is parasocial and possibly exploitative.
NFTs stand as a key way to level the playing field between fans and artists. They enable people to directly finance artistic production, as well as share in the wealth generated whenever an album is streamed or purchased. When she announced “Red (Taylor’s Version),” Taylor mentioned in a tweet that “Red is about to be mine again, but it has always been ours.” Has it, though?
See also: The Financialization of Fandom | Opinion
Swifties, who streamed the 10-minute version of her hit “All Too Well” non-stop, earned absolutely nothing. I was one of them. To call a spade a spade, there’s some overlap between Swifties and TSA dogs: They all know they’re not getting paid.
If “Taylor’s Version” was released as an NFT, she’d be able to share that money with her fans while still achieving her goal of regaining control of her music, opening the door to a financially incentivized fanbase. But why should she?
The reality is that Swift, and most artists, don’t need to share earnings with their fans, because why would you pay a TSA dog? They’re doing their job well. They’re happy. They’re very, very loyal. In fact there’s an overabundance of loyalty that, in an artist’s view, is unlikely to become scarce in the near future. Why fix it if ain’t broke, right?
Even if we operate under the assumption that Taylor Swift isn’t a greedy cash-grabber and wants to reward her followers, there’s still a reputational cost for her to enter the NFT space. It would be a burden for her PR team to tediously explain how smart contracts work or why they’re important.
It would also require her to dip her toes into an area within politics that’s foreign to her, such as the overblown environmental concerns and the bizarre idea that right-leaning crypto bros represent the entire crypto community. We’re talking career self-sabotage, if not suicide.
Despite Swift's absence from public discourse on crypto in general, it would be naive to assume that music NFTs haven’t crossed her mind. She probably saw a number of celebrity friends endorse crypto in the preceding year’s bull run.
And even if she hadn't head of NFTs in 2019, it's improbable that she's still ignorant. As of recently, her current record label purchased a Bored Ape. Not to mention Bella Hadid, one of Swift's closest friends, launching her own NFT collection. Even if Swift had not heard about NFTs in 2019, she almost certainly has now.
But the political factors alone make for a good business case not to move forward with it.
See also: A New Era of Media Begins With Tokenization | Opinion (2020)
In fairness to Swift, not publishing NFTs was the easiest way to go. If she just wanted to sell music and share her success with fans, why should that require her to prove that liberals can enjoy the benefits of crypto just as much as conservatives? It might "get lost in translation," or could be seen as "ask[ing] for too much."
Swift, at the time of releasing “Taylor’s Version,”was attacking the status quo in the entertainment industry where distributors and producers still exercise outsized control. Though a cynic may say she was merely portraying herself as a victimized girlboss who generated sales under the veneer of independence, altruism and feminism.
Today, there’s a viable way for pop stars to take a principled stand against the traditional music industry: introducing the financialization of fandom. i.e., using crypto for how it was meant to be used. Is it surprising that that hasn’t happened yet in a meaningful way? Not really, considering the people we’re talking about.
Celebrities are not absent from the crypto space, they’re just in it for the wrong reasons. Madonna purchasing a $300,000 Bored Ape NFT is no different from her purchasing a Birkin bag and Steve Aoki’s personal collection of 10 Bored Ape NFTs is not contributing to mainstream adoption.
It stuns me how celebrities are handed all of these investment opportunities without caring about mass adoption. They’re being handed a first-class ticket to the metaverse, and the people they’re bringing onboard basically end up underwater.
I was at the NFT LA conference in March 2022 and one of the panelists was Charlie Sheen, the actor, who had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
Macy Gray, the Grammy-nominated R&B singer who dabbles with music NFTs herself, said verbatim on another panel that she “does not know much about crypto.” Some are better at parroting talking points, but few understand the seismic shift crypto could represent for art.
People do, in fact, say all’s well that ends well. At this point, it’s hard to believe most celebrities have not been introduced to crypto. But do artists like Taylor Swift have a strong disbelief in the concept of smart contracts and music NFTs, or do they simply not care?
I suspect it’s a mix of both. Do Swifties know deep down that they deserve some level of compensation for blasting “Taylor’s Version” 24/7, or are they content with seeing a girlboss succeed?
See also: NFTs, Celebrities and Perverse Deal-Making | Opinion
I guess we’ll never know for sure why Swift turned a blind eye on NFTs but I suspect, or dare I say predict, seeing the mass commercialization of crypto and NFTs by celebrities once the dust settles and the political collateral damage is no longer a factor.
I can already hear Kris Jenner’s upbeat voice announcing a collaboration with an arbitrary layer 1 – “We’ve partnered with Cardano for the Kardashian Koin digital collection” – or Taylor Swift finally releasing a utility NFT collection to “finally be able to share success with my fans, available exclusively on Polygon.” After years of ignoring us, would this count as gaslighting?
TSA dogs will never realize that they aren’t getting paid but in 10 years, maybe even five, fans will. A new era of music and creativity will emerge once they do, adding another memory for Taylor to remember and maim her all too well.