Taylor Swift’s Millions Aren’t Worth a Single Prison Term

At an awards show at the end of 2014, musician Taylor Swift accepted her award saying that 2014 was an important year because it was the year she stood up for herself as an artist. In July 2014, she wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry. (1) Swift makes economic arguments about the value of an artist’s work: “the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace.” She reasons as follows: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is.”

What does Swift blame for society’s failure to recognize this value? “Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically,” she writes. By blaming piracy, file sharing, and streaming, Swift has adopted what author Rob Reid called in 2012 “Copyright Math”, in which the movie industry claims that the “economic loss” from file sharing of movies amounts to US$58 billion dollars – more than most of the value of US agriculture (2).

Unfortunately, as outrageous as it is, copyright math is no joke. In the same year the millionaire Taylor Swift stood up for herself as an artist, one of the best known, and most defiant, file sharing sites, The Pirate Bay, saw its founders arrested in an international manhunt. The three file-sharers, Fredrek Neij, Gottfrid Warg, and Peter Sunde, were handed prison sentences by a Swedish court in 2009 (3). They went into hiding. Sunde was arrested in June in Sweden and is serving an 8-month jail term. Warg was arrested in Cambodia and is serving three and a half years. Neij was arrested in November 2014 in Thailand. The investigation into the Pirate Bay was extensive, the seizures of equipment massive, and the attempt to shut the site down has been thorough and vindictive (4). The Pirate Bay is being made an example of.

Taylor Swift isn’t responsible for the Pirate Bay’s founders being in jail. But when artists make claims about file-sharing reducing their “value” as artists, these claims are political, and they are part of the political climate that makes the persecution of file-sharing politically acceptable.

But take Taylor Swift’s question seriously for a moment. What is the value of an artist? Taylor Swift has a net worth of US$200 million because tens of millions of people listen to her music. Most of these people first heard Taylor Swift’s music for free, maybe on the radio or online, and much later, decided to pay some money to buy recordings of her songs or albums, or to see her in concert. Almost no one buys an album without hearing some of the songs first. Without the free distribution channels, no one would know who Taylor Swift was, no one would have bought her album, no one would have gone to her concerts, no one would have known her value as an artist, and she would have none of her millions.

Or take a step back from that, and ask, did Taylor Swift develop her musical style on a deserted island and come to her American audiences, completed albums in hand? Or did she develop her songs based on influences by hundreds of other artists whose music she heard constantly, for free, throughout her childhood and adolescence? When I heard the wind instruments in her song, “Shake it Off”, for example, I thought of the bridge from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. For a more direct connection, artists have been telling their listeners to “Shake It” since at least the 1970s (5). Swift would never claim that the phrases “players gonna play” and “haters gonna hate” were original to her or to her song. And so on, and on. Musicians, indeed all artists, borrow from one another, are influenced by one another, learn, and add their own little original pieces to the culture. Some artists are more graceful than others in acknowledging influences or samples. I only knew that 2Pac had done a song called Me & My Girlfriend (6), which is pretty much the same song as Jay Z and Beyonce’s song, “03 Bonnie and Clyde” (7), when a friend played 2Pac’s (relatively obscure) version for me years after ’03 Bonnie and Clyde.

Without the chance to borrow and incorporate other people’s music into theirs, would Jay Z and Beyonce be able to refer to themselves as “a billion dollars in an elevator” (8)? Probably not. Without the ability to freely listen and share, there would be no Taylor Swift, no Jay Z, no Beyonce, none of the massive fortunes that these industry players are now trying to use, along with the legal system and their cultural influence, to stop file sharing.

No one can deny that these artists are talented. But talent is not so rare as Taylor Swift’s op-ed would suggest. There are millions of people, just as talented, that are toiling away in obscurity, putting their music out on the web, hoping one day to find audiences. Even for those who manage to put together a livelihood from their work, they might make thousands of dollars per year. Does Taylor Swift really believe she is ten thousand times more talented than one of these artists? Does she really believe that she has ten thousand times more heart and soul to pour into her work? Such beliefs are not to be celebrated. Like Beyonce’s talk of a “billion dollars in an elevator”, they are a celebration of an inequality that has become so pervasive that we forget how vulgar it is.

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould, wrote in his book “The Panda’s Thumb” that he was “somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Taylor Swift’s millions are of a lot less interest than the millions of Taylor Swifts whose talent will never be known.

A few decades ago, when I was a kid, I used to sit next to a stereo system that had a radio and a cassette tape recorder attached, waiting for one of my favorite songs to come on, so that I could press “record” at exactly the right time and get a recording that I could listen to over and over again. Worse, I would use these recordings to make mix-tapes that I would share with friends from my school. In the world of Swift and of copyright math, I was stealing, contributing to an early version of the multi-billion dollar economic losses that file-sharing represents today.

There are much better ways that society could support artists, giving all artists a good living and the chance to find audiences. There are better frameworks, like the Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org/), to facilitate artists being able to share and also get recognition for their work.

Taylor Swift cannot get what she thinks she’s worth without a whole framework of laws that control how we listen, watch, and read, without surveillance on all of us to ensure we comply with these laws, without the police to hunt down and arrest people who seek to share the products of the culture we live in, without jail terms and demonstrative punishments for those who defy these rules. It isn’t worth it.

First published at TeleSUR English.


Some have asked, “who pays artists?” I have no problem with audiences paying artists – for concerts, for merchandise, even for music, if they choose to. The problem is the monitoring and persecution of file-sharing, which is enabled by the defining of sharing music (or other information or cultural products) as a form of “theft”. It is a strange kind of theft where the person stolen from still has the item after the theft. We all know that sharing is a good thing, and that sharing is very different from “theft”. The vast majority of artists have no fortunes to protect by persecuting people who share their work. It is the millionaire artists who are trying to kick away the ladder of free music they climbed up on that this essay argues against.


Taylor Swift,July 7, 2014. “For Taylor Swift, the Future of Music is a Love Story.” Wall Street Journal. http://www.wsj.com/articles/for-taylor-swift-the-future-of-music-is-a-love-story-1404763219
Rob Reid, the $8 billion iPod. TED talks,February 2012.http://www.ted.com/talks/rob_reid_the_8_billion_ipod?language=en
Jon Russell, “Police Finally Arrest the Third and Final Founder of the Pirate Bay” TechCrunchNovember 4, 2014.http://techcrunch.com/2014/11/04/police-finally-arrest-the-third-and-final-founder-of-the-pirate-bay/
Andy, “Police seized 50 servers in Pirate Bay raid”,January 23, 2015.Torrentfreak.com.http://torrentfreak.com/police-seized-50-servers-in-pirate-bay-raid-150123/
Billboard.com, “10 Biggest ‘Shake’ Singles in Billboard Hot 100 History”. http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/6229455/biggest-shake-singles-billboard-hot-100-history
2Pac, “Me & My Girlfriend” – for now, listen at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdu9qt6XuPA
Jay Z and Beyonce, “’03 Bonnie and Clyde”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=copiznIfV3E&list=RDcopiznIfV3E– part of what Beyonce sings in this song is also taken from TLC’s song, “If I was your girlfriend” -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoV_-gex-bY
TMZ “Beyonce raps about elevator fight”.August 3, 2014.http://www.tmz.com/2014/08/03/beyonce-elevator-fight-money-jay-z-solange-flawless-remix-marriage/

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction.