Posted in Music
October 16, 2018

Building the Pop Music Empire, Part 2 (Olivia Currin Duell)

The following is the second part in a two-part installment. The first part can be found here.

Popular music artists as intertextual commodities

Indeed, when fans support an artist with such ferocity, and both consume and contribute to the artist’s empire, the studio album can remain an important and lucrative component of the music industry, but only because fan anticipation fuels an established artist’s album cycle. What this means is that when an artist releases an album, the texts that surround the release, which compile the overall album cycle, constitute a larger media event.

For instance, highly invested fans anticipate each small piece of information related to the music artist they follow. Therefore, promotional material, even just an announcement of a far­off release date, a thirty second preview of an upcoming single, or a tracklisting can produce intense fan speculation. For artists popular enough to warrant this massive attention, the album release thus becomes a highly anticipated and notable event in itself.

Scholarship from Daniel Biltereyst and Philippe Meers, who discuss how blockbusters become larger events, helps explain how an album cycle also becomes a newsworthy media event. For Biltereyst and Meers, who define

an event as a multidimensional concept, a connecting issue between marketing and public discourse management strategies, the (discursive) creation of a certain horizon of expectation, the promise of pleasure, spectacle and imagination, the attempt to mediate audiences’ movie experiences, public reception and discourse,

the life cycle of a blockbuster develops into a larger media event (72).

Comparatively, album cycles produced within already established and powerful empires generate an exciting period of constant promotion during which an artist empire becomes saturated with texts, both ancillary and central, as well as constant fan and critic discourse. Furthermore, this cycle repeats indefinitely, for as long as the artist remains notable and active in the music industry (and even for inactive artists who can replicate the cycle with a “greatest hits” album).

Accordingly, artists whose albums have achieved this event status occupy a position few other artists can. Artists who construct their own music empires effectively grow beyond their position as an individual cultural figure and instead work as what P. David Marshall describes as “an intertextual commodity that has permeable boundaries among cultural forms” (69).

As artists who construct music empires develop their brands, their identities become conflated with the content they produce, the texts and discourse that surround them, and any other brand empires they collaborate with. For artists desired in other cultural capacities, their brand develops into a larger and more extensive persona that moves beyond a single cultural platform.

For example, Nicki Minaj is an example of an artist who navigates a variety of cultural spaces: she has appeared as a regular judge on the television show American Idol; has acted in the box office success The Other Woman; and currently endorses a number of products, including the Beats by Dre Pill™ and Myx Fusions from beverage company Myx Beverages, LLC. Artists like Nicki Minaj thus develop into larger than life brands and personas, and exist across multiple platforms in the music industry to establish their presence in other cultural spaces. In this sense, Nicki Minaj and artists who achieve similar levels of popularity grow beyond individual cultural figures and into intertextual commodities.

Navigating through popular culture spaces as an intertextual commodity allows for the possibility to exist across multiple platforms and occupy a number of cultural spaces all at once, as Marshall further explains when he discusses that

wedded to this development of the complex and new intertextual commodity is the expansion of the pleasure of anticipation through more elaborate strategies of product promotion. Various forms of promotion are aligned with providing background information on cultural forms that are designed to deepen the investment of the audience in the cultural commodity. (80)

In this sense, artists become intertextual figures who attach their artist brand to other products, thus disseminating their names through as many cultural industries and spaces as possible. For instance, in Nicki Minaj’s music videos and songs, she regularly endorses products she partners with, like when she raps the line “If I’m sipping in the club, Myx Moscato” in her featured verse on singer Ciara’s song “I’m Out,” or prominently features the Beats Pill in her music video for “Only.” She references these products so frequently that they effectively become synonymous with Nicki Minaj’s overall brand and persona, and when cultural consumers familiar with Minaj’s brand see Myx Moscato or the Beats Pill in other contexts, they are reminded of Nicki Minaj’s larger music empire.

As a result, to construct, maintain, and control their music empires, popular music artists establish themselves as omnipresent, larger-than-life personas, and thus become an intertextual commodity, constantly referencing and being referenced by other cultural figures and products. Furthermore, as music artists undergo album cycle after album cycle, they continuously produce material for public consumption; hence, these artists perpetually construct their music empires, which helps them occupy massive spaces in the music industry and potentially permeate other cultural industry spaces. For artists who establish themselves as intertextual commodities, their status allows them to exist throughout multiple cultural spheres and to disperse their material across multiple media platforms.

Consequently, well-established popular music artists rarely exit public discourse, and are constantly scrutinized or lauded by critics and fans, which only further builds artist empires. Ultimately, constructing an empire additionally provides an artist a broad and expansive cultural existence, in which they navigate multiple platforms, gain massive exposure, and entice as many fans as possible to enter into their extensive worlds.

Conclusion: Only the music artist as intertextual commodity can maintain an event-status album release

 Many fans, critics, and other artists have discussed Taylor Swift’s reasoning for pulling her music from streaming services, and these conversations include both praise and criticism. In Taylor Swift’s own words, she remains unwilling to contribute her life’s work to “an experiment” that she believes unfairly compensates music industry writers, producers, artists, and creators. In this sense, Swift’s distrust of new technologies that facilitate new modes of music consumption and change the music industry landscape aligns with fears recording industry executives hold.

While the record industry desperately attempts to keep the studio album a lucrative product, major artists like Coldplay, Beyoncé, and Adele implement “windowing” strategies in which they withhold their albums from streaming services to encourage fans to purchase digital or physical albums. Taylor Swift, in a more extreme move, additionally pulled her entire music catalog from Spotify and other streaming services, and does not indicate any intentions of putting it back.

Although many consider these strategies as a stance against music streaming, in actuality, this is a stance only the most established popular music artists can take. Artists like Coldplay, Beyoncé, and Adele have already carved out their space in the music industry, and have inserted their brands into other cultural industries, as well. As a result, these artists have built their music empires, and exist in the music industry space not as individuals, but rather as intertextually commodified popular culture figures that navigate through various cultural platforms.

Therefore, Taylor Swift’s decision to pull her entire music catalog, including her heavily anticipated, brand new album 1989 from Spotify, does not seem such a risky move for an artist who has already completed four other highly profitable album cycles. During each previous album cycle, Swift established her industry presence, built her brand, cultivated her fanbase, became a public figure, made various product endorsements, performed and appeared on awards shows, conducted official media interviews, and additionally released a total of thirty-one music singles, twenty-nine music videos, four studio albums, three live albums, and two concert films.

Those invested in Swift’s music empire expect her to produce more content in this fifth album cycle, which her fanbase has anticipated since her last album cycle ended. In the intermission, Swift and her management team direct these fans to ancillary content and other platforms featuring any texts or discourse related to Swift’s empire. This fanbase is dedicated and will ultimately make the extra effort to consume her fifth album through any available outlets.

Listeners may still pirate her work, but her core fanbase aims to consume as many pieces of her empire as possible; therefore, Swift entices these fans with the bonus material she provides in her physical deluxe edition of 1989. These fans furthermore desire concert tickets, products Swift endorses, and any ancillary content, like documentaries, she releases.

Additionally, her fans contribute to her overall empire when they watch music video after music video on YouTube, purchase magazines or watch talk shows that feature her interviews, or tune in to awards shows that feature her performances. Overall, as Taylor Swift produces, her fans will consume, even if she pulls her music catalog from the music industry’s fastest growing mode of music consumption.

Not many artists hold this privileged position within the music industry. For those who have just begun building their music empire, artists who have only recently signed with a major label and have gained some momentum from only one or two popular singles or videos are generally satisfied with any exposure they receive. Another artist on his way to constructing his own brand, Ed Sheeran, has claimed that music streaming services like Spotify build up his overall audience and thus allow him to “tour very comfortably,” as noted by Davidson.

Another less established artist, rapper Angel Haze, grew frustrated with label Island/Republic Records when it continuously delayed the release of Haze’s debut album. In retaliation, Haze (who has stated a preference for they/their/them pronouns) leaked the album directly to their fans, explaining their dedication to their listeners and desire for fans to hear the work. Kory Grow documents how, on a personal Twitter account, Haze wrote,

Since they don’t want to put it out this year, I will. Here’s the album. Here is Dirty Gold. I hope you enjoy it. Sorry to Island/Republic Records, but fuck you. I got here doing this for my fans and if you guys don’t feel the same, it won’t stop me…. [The fans] will get the music they were promised.

Haze, who was forced to wait to release an album that was already completed, indicated in Twitter posts that their repeatedly delayed album release date implied to fans that Haze was not working to deliver the debut. Indeed, their label’s decision to push the release date back even further did not help build any momentum, which new artists need to fuel their overall empire building endeavors.

Likewise, more established hip hop artist M.I.A. grew frustrated when her label Interscope Records delayed her album release, as well. Her initial single and music video “Bad Girls” was very well received critically, but her label delayed the release of her album Matangi for nearly two years. When M.I.A. threatened to leak her album herself, she finally secured an official release date, according to Coulehan. In this case, M.I.A. also wanted to present her work to her fans in the quickest and most efficient way possible, and appeared fed up with the dwindling momentum caused by her long-awaited album.

In conclusion, this article neither attempts to convince readers that the marketing strategies of Taylor Swift are superior to the marketing strategies of M.I.A. and Angel Haze, nor offers a solution to artists and executives navigating this changing music industry landscape.

What this project aims to do is to provide distinctions necessary for understanding what an artist needs to achieve to most successfully build their presence, and thus, be successful, in the music industry’s current conditions. Overall, few artists reside in the music industry the way exceptionally established artists like Taylor Swift do, and it is important to realize that not all artists can market their work in the same way that she does.

To achieve the status Taylor Swift holds, an artist has to undergo the process of building a music empire, which involves navigation through and across multiple platforms of the music industry and into other cultural industries. Such a process additionally requires the artist to function as an intertextual commodity. While the industry’s most notable popular music artists gain and maintain enough momentum to build their own music empires, this momentum proves difficult to sustain from album cycle to album cycle, which is why artists continuously must produce content and texts that generate buzz and hype. Sometimes, that buzz and hype will come from an album release, but in a time in which the album becomes less important, artists are able to generate momentum through other means.

Thus, artists operate intertextually in order to gain maximum exposure in the largest number of cultural spaces. For these less established artists who have not yet constructed a stable, infallible music empire, operating intertextually may include less glamorous endeavors than awards show performances and lucrative product endorsements, and may instead involve conducting interviews with whatever media outlet will listen or selling the rights of a song to any product that will feature it in a commercial advertisement.

Ultimately, artists like Taylor Swift and others who remain dedicated to past industry practices and to the glorified idea of the studio album will achieve their goals, but only because they have an audience willing to consume anything the artist produces; meanwhile, other artists just want anybody who will listen to their music to do so, and know that building an empire and reaching the powerful position Taylor Swift holds takes an immense amount of time and momentum that in reality, few artists can ever achieve.


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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