Posted in Music
October 6, 2018

Building The Pop Music Empire, Part 1 (Olivia Currin Duell)

The following if the first part in a two-part installment.

Author Note: The following was written in 2015 and details how critical discussion of popular music is largely missing from the field of media studies. This essay discusses how popular music fits into a media studies theoretical framework, and more specifically, compares industry practices occurring around album cycles and music releases to industry practices that anticipate and follow the release of blockbusters. Furthermore, this essay looks at notions of building a universe or world with media, as narratively complex television shows do, and draws on the work of P. David Marshall, Derek Johnson, and Daniel Biltereyst and Philippe Meers to discuss the popular music album cycle as a world­building, intertextual, media event. Finally, this essay examines several notable popular music artists, Taylor Swift in particular, to develop a case study detailing how pop music’s artist empires are built.

The struggling studio album in a time of music streaming services

Much scholarship on the music industry details the worries of industry executives in the aftermath of the rise of digital music in the early and mid-2000s. The advent of illegal digital file sharing, like the original Napster, as well as legal digital music platforms, like iTunes, posed the first decade of the new millennium as a time of crisis for the music industry. Now, with the popularity of legal streaming platforms like Spotify rising, similar industry anxieties center on the fate of the studio album, and media outlets have extensively detailed industry concerns over decreasing album sales.

For instance, a roundup of fretful headlines from 2014 include: “Album sales fall to lowest ever in US” from The Guardian in January; “Downloads in Decline as Streamed Music Soars” from The New York Times in July; and “Albums Suffer as CD Sales Decline” from The Wall Street Journal in July. In his article “Digital music sales are in free fall, as Spotify does to iTunes what iTunes did to CDs,” David Holmes focuses on the new prominence of music streaming services, and raises the obvious question: “Why would you pay $9.99 or more for one album on iTunes when for the same price each month you can hear millions of songs on a streaming music platform like Spotify?”

Whereas ten years ago, music industry executives lamented the fall of the physical CD and faced the radical changes digital music caused for the industry, executives now fear possibilities of comparable industry losses in digital album sales due to the rising popularity of music streaming.

Though it may seem the music industry is now entering a “crisis” similar to what occurred during digital music’s introduction a decade ago, the work of scholars John Williamson and Martin Cloonan help make an important distinction between the record industry and the larger music industry. Specifically, they note the

two main problems with the term ‘the music industry.’ First, it suggests a common homogenous industry, whereas the reality is of disparate industries with some common interests. Secondly, the term is frequently used synonymously with the recording industry (305).

The authors’ distinction helps clarify that the priorities of music executives who explicitly work within the sector of the record industry may neither necessarily align with the priorities of the artist said executive represents, nor with those who work in other sectors of the more expansive music industry. Williamson and Cloonan emphasize this distinction further when they highlight various musicians who do indeed support illegal music sharing through peer­to­peer services (309).

Moreover, their discussion clarifies that “the phrase ‘the music industry’” is not “synonymous with the actions of industries’ organizations such as the BPI, RIAA,” and other companies currently taking serious action against music sharing and piracy. As a result, not all artists view digital albums or streaming platforms as a primary concern, and various artists even work with these new models in effort to strategically market their albums.

Simon Frith’s work furthers this discussion and explains how digital file sharing causes tensions specifically for the recording industry, in that music executives fear that

as the Internet becomes a musical conduit for domestic consumers, so its economic and technological logic will shape the music business­­ the record may no longer be music’s preferred commodity form (391).

His point here applies not only to illegal music sharing and digital albums, but can include music streaming platforms as well.  He implies that new technologies, especially those that prove popular, as music streaming does, are what shape the music industry’s overall trajectory. Thus, technologies that offer on demand downloading and streaming, technologies which allow users to consume pieces of an album rather than the whole product, fail to emphasize the album as the central industry component it once was. In this sense, it is already too late to return the album, a product which once proved extensively lucrative to the music industry, to its prior glorified standing.

Although various artists and executives attempt to execute promotional strategies that elevate the album and help it maintain its status as the central component of an artist’s overall work, Frith’s analysis indicates that the internet’s effects on the music industry might render these endeavors fruitless. However, as the popularity of streaming services rises, better established artists have interestingly indicated that their priorities align with record industry executives.

This article will detail various artists who, rather than embrace a changing music industry landscape currently moving past digital downloads and gravitating toward streaming platforms, instead market their albums with tactics to turn their audiences back towards past models of music consumption.

Anti-streaming marketing strategies

Indeed, a number of pop stars still focus on strategies to emphasize their album releases and profit as much as possible from album sales. Many artists do so by arranging exclusive album releases with major corporations, like Walmart and Target, in an attempt to offer fans extra incentives to buy physical album copies. In doing so, these artists take a stance not only against free streaming sites that pay artists little, but also reject even digital downloading platforms like iTunes. Although music consumers, adamantly against paying for a full album, are still able to pirate the music illegally, in actuality, this exclusive partnership method has proven successful for many established, popular artists.

For example, AC/DC released their fifteenth studio album Black Ice in physical format only, with Walmart as the exclusive distributor; ultimately, the album peaked at number one in 29 countries, and was the second best-selling record of 2008. Likewise, Kiss also released their nineteenth studio album, Sonic Boom, exclusively in physical format at Walmart, a strategy that also allowed the band to chart at number two on the Billboard 200 charts in 2009. Although these exclusive release strategies were successful, these bands both rose to fame in the 70s, an era in which the only format was the physical format and purchasing physical records was the norm; thus, both bands likely have a fan base willing to make the trip to Walmart to purchase their individual copy of the album.

However, contemporary artists have interestingly orchestrated exclusive in­store releases as well. In 2014, both Coldplay and Taylor Swift released deluxe editions of their albums exclusively at Target. In both cases, the standard editions of Coldplay’s Ghost Stories and Taylor Swift’s 1989 are available for digital purchase via iTunes, indicating that neither artist opposes digital downloading; however, both artists refrained from streaming their albums on Spotify.

Coldplay’s album, which dropped in May 2014, finally appeared on Spotify and other streaming services in September 2014, while Taylor Swift’s 1989, released in October 2014, may never, ever, ever appear on streaming services, ever. According to Stuart Dredge, this strategy, in which artists delay releasing their music to streaming platforms, is called “windowing,” an “attempt to maximise sales for a few months” becoming more popular with better established artists confident their fan base will commit to purchasing their music. Taylor Swift in particular has been vocal about her decision to withhold not only her most recent album, but also her entire music catalog from streaming platforms. Katie Rife quotes Swift:

All I can say is that music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment…. And I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music.

Undoubtedly, Taylor Swift’s strategy has worked to her advantage, as 1989 sold 1.287 million units in its first week, while simultaneously “beating her previous first­week peak (1.208 mil, earned by fourth album Red) by about 80,000, and besting any other album released in over a decade,” as noted by Unterberger. Yet Swift is an exceptionally established artist with an extraordinarily cultivated and highly dedicated fan base, and her audience’s intense willingness to buy her albums will not necessarily cause the “grand experiment” that is Spotify to come to a halt.

As Taylor Swift notes, the current landscape of the music industry is constantly in flux, and historically, it always has been; in fact, just as new technologies transitioned the industry from physical formats to digital albums, the same happened when CDs overtook vinyl. As a result, music streaming services, though indeed a new and experimental mode of distributing and consuming music, nonetheless appear to be the next prominent format that will shape the industry and its future.

Furthermore, music consumers are definitely responding positively to streaming services. Described by Morris, in the year to date statistics from January to June 2014,

digital track sales dropped 13% to 593.6 million, in comparison to 682.2 million moved in the same period last year. On demand streaming continued to boom, soaring 42% to almost 70.3 million streams (compared to 49.5 million in the same period last year). However, revenues derived from streaming are a fraction of those derived from physical and digital album sales on a per­unit basis.

What these statistics indicate is that, as streaming services rise in popularity, what changes is how music listeners prefer to consume music; thus, as services like Spotify remain convenient, efficient, and cheap for users, consumer motivations to purchase albums, in digital as well as physical formats, continue to decline. Though major artists like Coldplay and Taylor Swift can choose to withhold their music from music streaming platforms, this strategy might not prove successful for all artists, especially up and coming artists who might just want to deliver their music to listeners in the most efficient way possible.

Building artist empires

In discussing artist action against streaming sites like Spotify, the fact that artists like Taylor Swift and Coldplay occupy a unique and privileged position in the music industry needs consideration. For instance, Taylor Swift, Coldplay, and other artists who have withheld their albums from Spotify for a windowed period, including Beyoncé and Adele, are pop figures who have established their careers in the music industry and have in turn cultivated a massive fan base. Furthermore, such figures have the privilege to market their album release as a media event.

Generally, less powerful artists with less industry status simply want as many listeners as possible exposed to their music, and once a music release, like a popular single or music video, finally generates hype, these artists have the opportunity to build upon that initial momentum and continue to construct their own space in the popular music industry. Not all artists can maintain this momentum, however, which is why so many artists fail to deliver another hit single or album, and thus become one-hit-wonders.

Meanwhile, massively successful artists have already created their own music empire. These artists have major label support that helps them disseminate their music and other products to as many music consumers and media outlets as possible, and thus these artists are most likely to build upon their economic successes. Moreover, as established artists face pressures from their labels and fans to constantly produce, they therefore continuously construct their artist brand and music empire. Consequently, the most powerful artists in the music industry always produce some kind of buzz, whether through promoting an upcoming album release, or just through fueling fan speculation via posts on social media.

Scholarship from Derek Johnson on narratively complex television assists in understanding the effects of the artist empire on artist careers and on fan consumption. Johnson discusses the phenomenon in which “audiences are no longer merely cultivated as fans, but also invited in, asked to participate in both the world of the television text and the process of its production” (61). In a television era he dubs “TVIII,” he examines “contemporary ‘multiplatforming’ strategies to deploy television content to be consumed serially across a range of media” and determines that “seriality is now dispersed across media markets,” which encourages audiences “to enter the narrative and industrial spheres” (62­-63). In other words, television as a medium has moved outside of and beyond the physical television set and across a number of platforms, largely from changes to the television industry due to the effects of the internet on how fans consume television.

Music artists, like television showrunners, also cultivate and invite fans into their music empires; indeed, through social media accounts, official artist websites, or via various media outlets, artists disperse texts across a number of different platforms, which offers fans multiple opportunities to enter into a behind­the­scenes look at their production processes.

Most prominently, television texts that enter online spaces include: promotional material; fan created texts that analyze recent episodes and speculate about upcoming episodes; critic reviews; featured interviews on various media outlets with cast members and showrunners; and official social media accounts affiliated with the television program, channel, cast members, and creative team members. Many of these types of texts exist in a popular music artist’s music empire, as well. Yet Johnson is careful to distinguish that texts like these span multiple platforms and act as more than just ancillary texts. He argues:

…multiplatforming functions hyperserially by linking together narrative experiences across platforms. Hyperserial, multiplatformed texts therefore have a multi­dimensional, hyperdiegetic spatiality, constituted between media platforms, into which the audience may enter. That space, however, is not always digital/virtual… instead often becoming merged with the spaces of everyday life. (70)

Here, his argument urges framing the television industry and the content it produces in terms of spatiality; indeed, narratively complex television not only builds an expansive, fictional television world, but also develops into a world that moves outside and away from the television set. As this occurs, the storyworld expands onto and across online platforms, and an individual television program thus gains the ability to occupy various media spaces.

In effect, the television show becomes a world that blends television, online, and “real­world” spaces, a world which exponentially extends outward. Consequently, viewers feel they have the ability to enter into this expansive constructed space, while on the other hand, that same space also bleeds into a viewer’s day to day life and activities. In other words, television fans can now consume much more than just the show itself, and actually enter what feels like a larger television space that affects a fan’s everyday goings­on.

The same worldbuilding process happens around the work of music artists. In particular, during a major popular music artist’s album cycle, an artist creates an album and embarks on a world tour. Around these two events, a number of related texts develop and span across multiple platforms. In discussing this phenomenon, Johnson’s use of the term “hyperdiegesis” becomes important, which he uses to describe the intensified, participatory spaces television programs construct for their fans. As Johnson explains:

To offer up a tidy pairing of theoretical terms, I would say that the hyperserial connectivity of multiplatformed television allows viewers to metaphorically enter and consume from positions within its vast, internally coherent, hyperdiegetic spaces. By creating more proximate relationships between the spaces of production, consumption and narrative, multiplatforming has reshaped the relationships between industry, audience and text. (73)

Therefore, in creating these multiplatformed, hyperdiegetic television programs, a program constructs a narrative world that moves into “real­life” spaces, beyond and outside of the show itself, and a world into which audiences can enter. Furthermore, within a hyperdiegetic space, which ultimately offers audiences increased opportunities to invest their money and emotions into their show of choice, fan interaction with the television program intensifies (74). As these vast hyperdiegetic television spaces grow even more expansive, fans continuously encounter new texts to consume, and thus always feel invited into this participatory narrative world.

This discussion of the hyperdiegetic space easily applies to individual artist’s music empires. Just as television programs travel across multiple platforms and construct a hyperdiegetic storyworld that moves beyond the show itself, music artists promote their music and products across platforms in order to build up their artist brand and music empire. In fact, the internet and the numerous platforms it provides has affected the television industry and the music industry in similar ways. Hyperdiegetic television storyworlds are in a constant state of construction, as fans and the industry continuously contribute texts and discourse to these spaces; likewise, popular music artists undergo a similar process of continuous worldbuilding.

Surrounding established popular music artists and their released material is a flurry of promotional texts, criticism, and fan discourse, all of which aids in assembling a music artist’s empire. While fans of a television show might download podcasts with showrunner interviews, or follow official program­affiliated social media accounts to consume promotional material or post­episode analyses, fans of a music artist will also stay updated with any teasers for upcoming music releases and readily consume interviews and music reviews that follow those releases.

In turn, music artists navigate and occupy as many spaces as possible in order to build and maintain their own personal brands and music empires. In other words, music artists also build their own worlds that invite an audience in; the immense success of that world becomes most apparent when artist fandoms center around different music artists, like in the cases of Beyoncé’s “Beyhive,” Nicki Minaj’s “Barbz,” Lady Gaga’s “LittleMonsters,” and Rihanna’s “Rihanna Navy.” Especially for fans who adopt these self­identifying fan labels, fandom becomes a space of participation, and builds a two-way connection that allows audiences to insert themselves into an artist’s music empire as the empire in turn seeps back into the listener’s personal identity and daily life.

To return this discussion to the struggling studio album, consider how constructing the hyperdiegetic space helped the television industry grapple with similar problems the music industry faced during the rise of the internet. As the music industry dealt with the decline in album sales after the growth of peer­to­peer file sharing and digital music platforms in the early and mid-2000s, the television industry endured the negative effects of torrenting and streaming websites like The Pirate Bay, Megaupload, and TV Links, which fueled copyright infringement and changed how television viewers consumed their programs of choice.

Digital video sales from iTunes, along with streaming platforms like Hulu, Netflix, and official websites associated with individual television channels, helped combat television piracy, but also solidified a new method of television consumption. As watching television online became and remains a preferred mode of consuming television for many viewers, the industry worked to provide other facets of television content, including promotional and ancillary texts, in online spaces.

Likewise, as changing technologies affect the music industry landscape and alter the value of the album, music artists work to build up an empire of content in an attempt to combat this. Thus, when they extend their brand and their work across various platforms in order to occupy the largest space and command the most attention in the music industry, they build an artist empire that develops and maintains a momentum that motivates fans to pay for music releases.

Artists like Taylor Swift have already established their music empire, a universe saturated with artist content, ancillary texts, and fan and critic discourse. Accordingly, Swift’s most dedicated fans continuously and unwaveringly invest themselves in whatever material she releases, as well as consume any related texts that surround and add to her overall empire. This committed fanbase, therefore, will willingly purchase a deluxe album from Target just to obtain their own physical copy of 1989, a CD that includes three extra songs, several artist voice memos, collectible photo prints, and a booklet advertised as Taylor Swift’s own design. This “bonus” material works as another component of Swift’s music empire a fan chooses to consume to feel included.

Ultimately, the reason Swift can move so many units of an album is because she has already constructed and constantly maintains her empire, which remains occupied by a massive number of unwavering constituents. Indeed, it is mostly only already established artists who can attempt to hold onto and restore the importance of an album and achieve success. These artists orchestrate release strategies that attempt to elevate the studio album back to its position as the central component of the music industry, but in reality, these figures are the only ones who access the necessary power to achieve this. For less popular artists, windowing release strategies that take a stance against streaming sites prove risky, as such artists have less exposure, and thus have a fanbase less invested and more reluctant to purchase an entire album prior to listening to any of its music.

Furthermore, when artists have not yet established their own music empire, they lack the momentum that fan anticipation provides. On the other hand, more established popular artists can achieve this type of windowing release and move physical and digital units because their empire is larger, more expansive, and constantly delivers texts to an audience of highly responsive fans who await every single release, regardless of whether that release is a deluxe edition album, or simply an Instagram picture hinting that the artist is in the studio recording a new track. For such exceptionally established artists, every move made constitutes an event, and thus the album release, as well as the overall album cycle, remains eventful in a time when album releases feel less important and appreciated.


Olivia Currin Duell is a pop culture expert with a background in fandoms and celebrity-audience interactions. She is interested in the power celebrities have over their fandoms, as well as the power fandoms have in the world. She has an MA in English with a Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies concentration from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Duell received a BA in English and Gender Studies from Cornell University. She specializes in writing about women in music. When she’s not writing, she is an artist and musician. You can find her personal page here.

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