On Oct 24, 2006, the fledgling Big Machine Records in Nashville, Tennessee in the United States released what may have looked like on paper as a 15-minutes-of-fame kind of album.
The work was from a then-unknown 16-year-old singer/songwriter. Her songs dealt in themes country music didn’t pay much attention to: Teen romance, high school dramas and youthful dreams.
Slowly but surely, however, that album, Taylor Swift, began creeping up the country album chart, and the curly-headed artiste from whom it took its name began popping up more and more, especially once Big Machine issued her single that name-checked one of country’s biggest stars at the time, Tim McGraw.
By the end of the year, the album had moved 200,000 copies, and prompted the Los Angeles Times to spotlight Swift as one of the faces to watch in the coming year, praising the album for “(touching) on themes such as the fragile self-esteem of teen girls and the magic of first love”.
As promising as she seemed, it’s safe to say few could have anticipated the degree to which her music exploded, turning her into one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.
She proved what seemed to be an impossibility after the meltdown of the record business began with the dawn of the new millennium by topping the one million first-week sales figure with three consecutive albums: Speak Now in 2010, Red in 2012 and 1989 in 2014.
With that in mind, we look at 13 canny moves the artiste and businesswoman has executed along the way to becoming a dominant force in pop music over the first decade of her career.
1. First foray to Nashville (2001)
Millions of kids dream of stardom, but Swift early on demonstrated her powers of persuasion by getting her parents to drive nearly 1,287km from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, to Nashville. Once there, she cheerily knocked on doors of record labels, despite steep odds that anyone on Music Row would give the time of day to an 11-year-old. No contract resulted from that trip, but many did take note of her chutzpah.
2. Sony/ATV Publishing (2005)
About four years later, still woodshedding her singing and songwriting skills in Pennsylvania as a high school student, Swift scored a publishing deal with one of music’s biggest publishers – Sony/ATV Publishing – at the age of 15. She happily sacrificed the average teen’s extracurricular activities to head to her desk at Sony/ATV’s offices to further hone her songwriting skills instead of hanging out with friends at the burger shop and Friday night football games at school.
3. Signing with Big Machine Records (2006)
Bypassing contract offers from major labels, Swift (with her parents’ approval) gambled by signing with start-up Big Machine and its founder Scott Borchetta. Unlike his competitors, he was willing to let her record her own songs and co-produce her debut album with Nashville veteran Nathan Chapman.
4. Tim McGraw (2006)
Name-checking this country star on her first single smartly gave notoriously rigid country programmers an immediate point of reference, dramatically upping the odds they would at least give the song a listen amid the onslaught of new artistes.
5. Social media
As a teenager with no hesitation concerning social media, Swift fully embraced and exploited MySpace to interact directly with fans at a time when most power brokers in Nashville were asking MyWho? She followed suit with the advent of Twitter, Instagram and other social media, further building an intensely personal bond with those who were catching on to her music.
6. Taylor Swift (2006)
Breaking from the mould of teen pop musicians whose records pushed them prematurely into the adult world, Swift’s 2006 debut was built on songs unabashedly mining themes of life as a teenager. It was her belief, and Borchetta’s, that such songs could connect with a largely untapped fan base that didn’t have a lot of music speaking to them.
7. Love Story (2008)
In yet another hit, Swift, at 18, demonstrated no qualms at rewriting Shakespeare. Love Story, her teen fable of romance, reflected her starry-eyed vision of at least the possibility of happily ever after. The album containing that song, Fearless, made Swift the youngest recipient ever, at 20, of the Recording Industry’s overall album of the year Grammy Award.
8. MTV VMA Awards (2009)
Her response to Kanye West’s attempt to upstage her moment in the spotlight in front of millions of viewers was classy (and impressively mature), earning her greater respect from peers, fans and their parents.
9. Speak Now (2010)
By writing virtually all the songs, she disarmed cynics who suggested she was simply riding the coattails of the songwriting pros she collaborated with on many of the songs on her first two albums. The album also demonstrated that selling one million copies in a single week was still possible despite the music industry’s crushing downturn in sales during the preceding decade.
10. Mean (2010)
This song grew out of her thoughts about a needlessly harsh critic of her music, but through a powerful video she transformed it into a broader message of self-respect, highlighting its relevance to bullying and other too-common forms of public shaming. Legions of her fans strongly identified and cheered its message.
She was among the first to jump in after devastating floods hit Tennessee in 2010, donating US$500,000 (RM2.09mil) toward relief efforts. She was 20. Two years later she wrote and recorded Ronan, a benefit single that took her outside the milieu of her immediate life experience to underscore a theme of empathy with those who are suffering – with the direct result of proceeds helping one kid with cancer. In 2013 she gave US$4mil (RM16.7mil) to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to establish a music education centre targeting youths. As recently as August she donated US$1mil (RM4.2mil) to help victims of recent flooding in Louisiana.
12. Wall Street Journal op-ed on the value of music (2014)
Articulately making the case against the ongoing devaluation of music and its creators in our culture, Swift stepped up in the pages of the leading financial news publication to spark a robust public discussion. “Music is art, and art is important and rare,” she wrote. “Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.”
13. Facing down Apple (2015)
Further flexing her music industry muscle, Swift politely but firmly called out Apple for not paying writers, producers or artistes during a free three-month trial for its new music service. “I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company,” she wrote on her site. “Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing.” Apple reversed course. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service/Randy Lewis