Is it over now? Taylor Swift and the impact of over-saturation.

by Hannah Rutter

May 5, 2024

How [does] it end?

With Rolling Stone claiming it an “instant classic”, and The New York Times arguing that it “could use an editor”, Taylor Swift’s recently released album The Tortured Poets Department (“TTPD”) has certainly been divisive.

Personally, I think the album is nothing new. It’s missing both the catchiness of 1989 and the storytelling of folklore and evermore. To me, it’s musically monotonous and lyrically underwhelming, sparking the totally normal question: does the law of diminishing returns apply to Taylor Swift?

Ceteris paribus, have we reached the point where one more unit (a surprise double album) produces reduced output?

The law of diminishing returns was founded by economists in the 18th century while staring at their confined factory floors and wondering why adding one more underpaid child labourer was not leading to greater returns. The law states that if you continually increase one factor of production while holding all other factors constant, at some point an additional increase won’t have the same effect - it’ll contribute less to growth. As shown above, with each album the quality tends to increase (sorry old-Taylor loyalists). However, TTPD, an album over two hours long, may be the start of a new trajectory of diminishing quality for Taylor’s successive albums.

Even if album quality has plateaued, Swift has swamped the music market to the extent that sheer quantity could compensate for the album’s condition in generating fame and revenue. TTPD is the first album to claim the top 14 songs in Billboard’s Hot 100, and have all 31 songs in the leaderboard.

On Spotify, TTPD was the first album to achieve over 300 million streams within 24 hours of its release, awarding Taylor the title of most streamed artist in a single day. Unsurprisingly, both of the previous records were also held by Swift from her relatively recently released 1989 (Taylor’s Version) and Midnights albums. Whether these numbers are leading indicators for TTPD’s success remains to be seen, as naturally her existing fans (myself included) are going to listen to the new album at least once.

Ask any emotionally unregulated straight man, and they’ll tell you Taylor Swift fans, or “Swifties,” are a cult. Putting the sexist undertones aside (why aren’t avid male football fans given the same cult moniker?), Swift and her fanbase undeniably have considerable cultural and economic impact.

In 2023, her Eras Tour contributed US$4.3 billion to the USA’s GDP, with Swift earning approximately US$13 million per night (AU$19 million). If generating exorbitant profit was not enough, Eras-related spending allegedly helped the USA avoid recession last year.

With seven sold-out shows in Melbourne and Sydney, Australian economists were expecting a considerable injection to economic activity, with estimates ranging from $140 million to over $1 billion. Post-concert, KPMG chief economist Brendan Rynne found the predictions hyperbolic. Australians spent approximately $140 million on tickets, but with 98% of sales made by locals, there was no net effect on GDP. Swift’s profit after tax offset the approximately $100 million of Swiftie-related spending. The final Eras tour injection estimate ended at a measly 0.002% of GDP - $10 million after tax.

As for “swiftflation”, Taylor Swift and the Reserve Bank of Australia have no bad blood. The February consumer price index reached 3.4%, the same as January and below the 3.5% forecast. The heightened travel and hotel-related costs during the concert period were offset by a travel lull post-summer holidays, according to ABS head of prices statistics, Michelle Marquardt.

Additionally, even if Swift increased spending significantly enough to contribute to Australian inflation, this phenomenon is not Swift-specific. Most recently, Beyoncé allegedly contributed to Swedish inflation in June 2023, with hotel and restaurant prices increasing in the same month as her visit.

After being nominated Times’ most influential person of the year in 2023, there’s no doubt Taylor Swift has significant cultural power. Anyone who dares critique Swift risks allegations of sexism or death threats from her allegedly “cult-like” followers.

In June last year, a journalist for Business Insider was “doxed” for writing a gentle critique of the Eras tour. The harassment ranged from violent messages on social media to emailing his boss claiming he was a paedophile. Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Centre for Television and Popular Culture in the US, believes some Swifties demonstrate the “worst parts of stan culture”. While the internet facilitates connecting over shared interests, it also facilitates finding shared “enemies”.

There's a significant difference between hating Taylor Swift and disliking her music, but violent accusations at the slightest whiff of Swift scrutiny require reflection. No one wants their address published online or false allegations sent to their manager, so you keep any Taylor Swift qualms to yourself. Can ingenuine positivity and fear of a fanbase maintain Taylor Swift’s exponential growth?

If you can’t appreciate her songs, you can certainly appreciate Swift’s profit-turning prowess. While there’s artistry in creating intimacy with your audience, TTPD appears to be shifting away from a gel-penned diary entry to a tabloid article. Swift knows her audience loves her love life, and if her albums become gossip magazines then the musicality won’t matter - her albums will sell regardless.

As a female pop star with a predominantly female fanbase, naturally, the false notion of frivolous female hysteria rears its ugly head. RMIT University’s fan studies expert Kate Pattison unsurprisingly believes some criticism could be attributed to society’s well-established yet dated perception of female-led movements. Some claims that Taylor writes “too much” about her exes are tiptoeing towards good old-fashioned sexism – the quality of something is not contingent on the gender ratio of its audience. She’s not being hysterical, and most of the time, neither are her fans.

TTPD’s merchandise rollout reeked of shameless corporate promotion. Releasing four separate vinyls with one unique ‘bonus’ song appears gimmicky, encouraging unnecessary consumerism and undermining her artistry. In the first week, 700,000 vinyls sold, surpassing previous album sales. Not to mention the sold-out TTPD merch – you can even collect a unique cardigan for all of her newly released albums. Taylor Swift merchandise is often relatively low quality yet very expensive, leaving her a generous profit margin. While her billionaire status was earned solely from songwriting and performing, it’s impossible to ignore the raw capitalism.

To what extent should an artist be allowed to generate secondary revenue? The rise of streaming creates the illusion that music is “free”, undermining the labour going into producing and releasing songs. In 2024, Spotify changed its model so only songs streamed more than 1000 times receive (negligible) royalties. However, Taylor Swift is no underground up-and-coming. Someone who’s proudly accumulated over a billion dollars from her art alone has no need to rip-off fans with low quality t-shirts. Is she setting a precedent or is it purely profit?

At least for now, it isn’t over. Between starting and finishing this article, TTPD has continued to break records, regardless of the occasional (risky) negative opinion column. While this album may be the subjective tipping point to reduced quality, it’s certainly not the collapse of her fame. Swift’s oversaturation, so far, remains a success.


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