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And now for something different: The All-Taylor Issue.  

For those who have been following Taylor Swift’s career, Midnights isn’t just a blockbuster success, or a compelling set of pop songs. It is the apex mountain of music marketing. It is the distillation of all that Taylor and the industry has learned about how to create success in the past few years. It is the alpha and the omega

Taylor has always been smart and aggressive with her album rollouts, deftly weaving Easter eggs and fan events with the steady drip of new album details and rolling merch variants. But all of that was true even as interest seemed to be trending down in her last three studio albums—from Lover to Folklore to Evermore, first week numbers declined. So what happened with Midnights that flipped that trend and created the biggest first week release in seven years?

The answer is, a lot of iteration and applied learning, cross bred with the muscle of a global major label, and sprinkled with the faerie dust of one uh, very timely marketing idea.

Here are a handful of lessons the industry can take from Midnights' success.

5 > The Single is Dead for Blockbuster Album Campaigns.  

Of all the smart things Camp Taylor did around the release of Midnights, deciding not to release any music—not even snippets!—in advance may be the decision that produced the strongest results. She combined the timing of the proper album set up that she gave Lover, with the no-advance-music approach of Folklore and Evermore. The result? Peak anticipation. “That’s my goal now,” said one senior major label exec, unconnected to Taylor’s release. “Peak frustration. I want to tease it out and tease it out until fans are going crazy. Album release should be the relief.”

It’s amazing how long the antiquated idea of the pre-album single lasted. It’s a holdover from the days when you needed a hit song on radio in order to drive people to big box retailers to buy the album. In the social media/streaming nexus that increasingly represents the entire frontline music biz, you can focus all that pent-up demand into immediate consumer behaviors.

I spoke with about a dozen Taylor superfans in the past couple of days, and this was seen as a key to Midnights' success. All the fans had to go on was song titles and imagery. "None of her marketing included snippets of the actual music of vibe of the music," said fan Vineetha Ramesh. "This makes fans more curious as to what the music is going to sound like." This built immeasurable curiosity and chatter online. 

Added Swiftie Taylor Jackson, "The way she gave away little pieces of information, and therefore pieces of herself, leading up for weeks gave fans more buy in. We got to develop theories and share thoughts with one another and that amplified the anticipation because we wanted to consume her new material as soon as possible. And we wanted to be the one within our friend group/Reddit feed/etc. who was 'right' about each Easter egg and theory."

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4 > TikTok Is Way More Powerful Than "Just" Virality.  

The Taylor fans I spoke with were united in their belief that the roots of Midnights' success can be found in Taylor's decision to join and commit to TikTok a little over a year ago. And to viral trends like that of the very thrusty "Love Story" trend in Summer 2020, and the "Wildest Dreams" trend at the end of 2021.

Yes, these were viral moments that led to spikes in the streams of both of those songs. But they were much, much more than that for Taylor. These TikTok trends recontextualized Taylor and her music. This wasn’t the carefully controlled imagery, messaging and marketing that Taylor had come to be known for. This was … police officers gyrating in time to the beat. This was TikTok bliss at its finest, nearly 5 million videos—videos, mind you, not views—created to share confidence, jubilance and the beauty of humanity, at the exact moment when we were all down as bad as we could be from the whole Covid thing. Taylor was the sound of that. "I've been a fan for close to my entire life," shared Swiftie Jennifer Moglia. "But I remember around Red, 1989 and especially Reputation, it was seen as weird or cringe to like her. It was more popular to make fun of her dating history and call her crazy than to be a fan. I think “Swiftok” has sort of turned that around and made liking her cool again."

More practically speaking, success on TikTok meant Taylor was connecting with a Gen Z audience she may have largely missed. Gen Z was not on Tumblr or Twitter, two of Taylor’s previously-preferred platforms. This is what Swiftie Mijal Tenenbaum had to say when I asked her why Midnights was succeeding so much more than recent, previous releases: “My main thought is how differently Gen Z seems to be perceiving Taylor now, post-TikTok versus what the general perception seemed to be three years ago. When the last few albums came out it felt like Millennials were incredibly polarized on Taylor and Gen Z didn’t care either way. Tiktok really grabbed Gen Z with trends like the “Love Story” strut. Many teens even replied that they didn’t realize that was a Taylor song. Other songs that had big TikTok moments were “Enchanted” and “Wildest Dreams.” It felt like making the old songs cool again, combined with the re-recordings just led to so many new young fans that had dismissed her previously.”

And finally, #Swiftok as it became known, and its billion-plus views, indoctrinated these new fans with the norms, perks and community standards of what it means to be a Swiftie. Explained Swiftie Stacy: “Fans started to create pages specially for how Taylor Swift designs her fan base and how she caters it to what they want. Because of this, there are 'Swiftie influencers' who have thousands and thousands of views and followers. These accounts teach other people how to get concert tickets, how to meet Taylor, and what theories/easter eggs Taylor put in her social media posts/music videos.”

TikTok had become the most powerful imaginable Taylor Swift fan engine: recruitment, training and community, all in one place. 

3 > Give Your Fans What They Want (Or: How Taylor's Re-Records Breathed New Life Into Her Career)

Back when Taylor first announced that she was going to re-record her albums, everyone in the music business had an opinion. And while I'd like to be the first to say that mine almost literally could not have been more wrong, I also think it's fair to say that no one—perhaps not even Taylor herself—could have anticipated how powerful these re-records would prove to be for her career, and ultimately for the success of Midnights

Taylor moved forward by looking back. At a key moment in Taylor's career when the narrative maybe wasn't exactly what she would have wanted, and the more folk-oriented music was drawing fewer fans, she dropped "Taylor's Version" of Fearless (April 2021) and Red (November 2021). These re-recordings did two key things that help to explain the success of Midnights

On one hand, they re-energized and reconnected in powerful ways with old fans.
Says Swiftie Amanda Jacobsmeyer, the re-records were great for  "tapping into nostalgia... and bringing old fans who had drifted, back." Those older albums were what made Taylor the biggest artist in the world: intensely personal, and musically very accessible. Which means they were fantastic for introducing Taylor to all those new fans on TikTok. Between the re-records and the aforementioned TikTok trends, for most of the months leading up to the release of Midnights, the music young Taylor fans were hearing the most—or certainly, were exposed to a lot—were these older songs. 

This was the context into which Taylor dropped Midnights. And this is why the return to intensely personal storytelling (Folklore and Evermore were more universal in their stories and less personal) and the pop leanings of the new album made a lot of sense. Midnights is what many fans were primed for, without knowing. Taylor was as much (if not more) following up on all of these fans connecting (and reconnecting) with her older music, as she was following up on Evermore, her previous studio album from December 2020. It's in this context that Midnights makes a ton of sense. Explains Swiftie Meg Kehoe, "Midnights is an amalgamation of her entire career. You can nearly pinpoint which era each song was written during—which album each song might’ve been on, had it made the cut. It’s a career-spanning album that nods to every era she’s had. It doesn’t subscribe to the idea that it has to be just one thing. We get 1989, Reputation, Red, Lover... it’s all there

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2 > How to Market (and Merch) Like Taylor Swift (Or: Why Your Opinions About the Demise of Major Labels, While Supremely Interesting, Continue to be Wrong)

Simply, Taylor put on a modern day music business marketing master class with he release of Midnights. 

Lesson one: Wring everything you can from each step of your marketing plan (Or: Content is Key)
Taylor launched Midnights at midnight, of course, but then a few hours later released a whole new version of the album called Midnights (3am Edition). The effect? Millions of fans doubled their streaming efforts as they returned to the platform to see what the new release was about. There are so many examples of this approach throughout the Midnights campaign. At the MTV VMAs (who knew these were still happening until Taylor made them relevant again?) she announced she was going to release a new album, but told folks she would tell them more at "midnight." Many artists would make their track listing a hot social media post; Taylor rolled out the Midnight track names one at a time via a kitschy TikTok series called "Midnights Mayhem With Me" consisting of 13 episodes between September 21 and October 7. The second an artist stops engaging in this insane attention economy is the second an artists' relevance begins to decline. Love that or hate it, but Taylor understands it, and acts accordingly. 

Lesson two: Merch is Marketing. 
I don't know who, specifically, came up with the idea for the Taylor Swift clock (in short, the four vinyl variants of Midnights, arranged on a wall and combined with an additional purchase from Taylor's site, create a working clock). But I'm going to endeavor to find out, and once I share that information, anyone marketing any superstar artist should insist on working with that person. It is the best single music marketing idea of the year, and probably of several years, and if you don't agree, go ahead and argue with the 575,000 vinyl copies of Midnights that she sold -- a record for the SoundScan/Luminate era which dates back to 1991. And again, rollout was key with album variants. First the initial vinyl was put up for pre-sale as she announced Midnights. Then On Sept 1, three additional vinyl variants were announced. And then two weeks later, she announced the vinyl worked as a clock. Then she waited another two weeks to announce the Target exclusive version of the CD. All of this had the affect of keeping Midnights in the news cycle--especially important with no single at radio or streaming. And it kept fans thinking about buying additional version--a choice that obviously many, many made. Most of the Swifties I spoke with purchased more than one copy of Midnights. Some purchased all four vinyl versions and the Target exclusive. 

Lesson three: Find the Right Partners for Your Vision 
A major label is not the right home for everyone. But it remains the unparalleled choice, in my opinion, for the true global superstar. Don't want to take my word for it? Then take Taylor's. I don't think there is a superstar artist who is smarter or more aggressive about their business than Taylor. And given freedom and all the resources in the world—she could have hired or built or even bought almost literally any team she wanted, anywhere in the world—she assessed her options and chose Republic Records

On the most basic level, setting aside who came up with what idea, a major label is a powerful operations partner in a business that is increasingly about managing details—and hundreds of SKUs—across scores of key platforms and retailers around the globe. Can this be replicated by an artist who wants to hire an army to do all of that? Possibly. But… why? Coordinating massive global campaigns is probably the one thing that major labels are literally better than anyone else in the world at doing. And there's other reasons why a major label is the best choice. For one, the stakes are high, and everyone inside the Universal Music Group family is incentivized to crush this release. Would you want to be the Universal employee that has to explain to Lucian Grainge why some element of Taylor's campaign got screwed up? (Spoiler, the answer is no.) That's very different than hiring a bunch of different partners around the world who don't want to lose you, but may have plenty of other clients and can afford to lose you. 

Finally, the music biz is anything but simple these days. Did you know that Billboard rules dictate that, in order to count for the chart, a physical album must be mirrored as a digital album, and then you can launch a digital deluxe version on top of it? No? Well I guarantee you that the right folks at Republic understand this, because it's their job. It also likely explains why 3am is a separate release. The complexities—and thus, required experience and knowledge—don't stop there. Manufacturing, fulfillment and shipping on a release like this requires next-level familiarity with the process. "The manufacturing of superstar albums is insane these days," said one senior label exec, not connected to Midnights. "There’s cameras on manufacture, armed guards on shipping... Huge amount of money spent on security. It isn't like just anyone knows how to do this."
Lesson four: If you're not using Easter eggs for your fans, do you even care?
It's Taylor's secret weapon. And in today's multimedia, multi touchpoint landscape of fan engagement, what is the possible argument against using this playbook? 
She has a long history of feeding these fan frenzies. We've already discussed about how her fans have been going crazy on a number of platforms discussing Midnights hidden messages. But it's at the level now where mainstream media outlets frequently report on them. 
My personal favorite? When Taylor launched the "Midnights Mayhem With Me" series to announce track names on TikTok. The very first words of the very first video? "It's me. Hi." Or as we all know it now, the first three words to the chorus of her new single "Anti-hero." What makes it absolutely hilarious is that right after she says that in the video, she explains how she's known for dropping Easter eggs, and isn't here to deny that. It's just brilliant, entertaining stuff everywhere you turn, keeping fans constantly engaged and raising the bar on the meaning of creative storytelling and narrative. Why just be a pop star when your work can double as a conspiracy-theory-fulled dramatic series?

1 > China, China, China. (Or: Always Be Investing In Growth Markets)

We can all learn a lot from Taylor's growth in China. She leaned in and built her market, likely when it meant taking a loss, or at least making less money than perhaps she could have, to do so. She started with the Speak Now tour in 2011, when she played one date in Hong Kong. In 2014 she took the Red tour to Shanghai and then returned to Shanghai the following year to perform three nights for the 1989 tour. Along the way she arguably became more popular in China than in the United States, learned about Chinese censorship and picked up a kind of hilarious nickname, ‘mei mei’ (霉霉) which apparently means “moldy” or “unlucky.”

But all of this is what it takes to win in China—primarily, the commitment to prioritize and begin to do the work. And win she has done. The most currently available info showed her moving 270k+ digital copies of Midnights in China in just the first 24 hours of release, generating more than $1.3 million (US). China, Asia in general, and especially SE Asia have been rapidly growing and are all only going to continue to grow in importance to the global music business. Any superstar artist or manager who doesn't want to play the long game in these markets is choosing peril. 

HONORABLE MENTIONS (Or: The Things That I Would Have Written About If I Didn't 100 percent Lose My Mind Thinking and Writing About Taylor Swift This Week):

Everything you need to know about the #iVoted Festival. 

Apple Music Is Raising Prices and Spotify May Be Next 

State of Web3 Music:
The Web3 Guide to Getting Into the Music Industry & Inder Phull: “The convergence of Web3, gaming, and AI has the potential to transform the whole music industry.”

Merch from two anglesI’m with the brand! How merch saved the music industry & ’$5,000 Bruce Springsteen tickets, Taylor Swift’s $200 vinyl clock, and Bey’s $39.99 mystery box: The cost of being a superfan in 2022 is soaring

CHECK THIS OUT... Bandier senior Jackson Velli records as Picture Us Tiny, and is a house party/local venue favorite with Syracuse students. He signed a small deal with Will Tenney's SunPop label to release "Jackson, You Are Dying." Fans of '90s pop-punk will rejoice... the always-worthy Trapital is releasing a trove of info in its first-ever first-ever "Culture report" with insights on music revenues, live performances, streaming, social media, and more. Sign up to get it here

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