Don’t Underestimate the Power of an Audience

It seems like the music journalism community has decided that this is the week they can finally pile on Taylor Swift. In the past 36 hours, I’ve read headlines about her “career-ending” Grammy performance, bloggers and columnists have called for her to hand back the statues (not just the one that broke) or retire altogether from the music business.

Bitter, much?

Three things strike me as important about this debate:

1. It’s not like someone suddenly threw her on the stage and realized, “oh, no, she can’t sing!” Taylor’s team understands that the power of an organic live performance holds far more sway with her audience than anything inauthentic. When Lori and I watched the Grammycast, we noted that she probably should have sung an octave lower, but we gave her credit for taking a shot. Her fans “get” the courage it takes to turn Autotune off during a telecast that makes Jamie Foxx sound like a robot.

2. Grammys are awarded for production, not for live performance. It’s incredibly brave to get up and sing in front of The Industry without auto-tune, especially in an environment where “being pitchy” has become an American Idol catch phrase. It cracks me up that so many people are calling for her Grammys to be rescinded because Stevie Nicks sounded so much better than her on stage. Hell, Stevie Nicks could have made Beyonce sound bad.

3. Doesn’t it seem disingenuous that artists should penalize each other for taking risks? If Pink had fallen off that trapeze, I’m sure someone would have been talking about how her lack of acrobatic skill negates her musical talent. Lady Gaga sitting across from Elton John was a surprise, but not a huge risk: they have essentially the same career trajectory. Being accused of “not being country enough” then rolling out with a hootenanny arrangement of your biggest pop hit with one of rock’s sharpest singers — that’s a risk.

One of the central tenets of Grow Your Band’s Audience is that there’s an audience for anything. Being “good” or “bad” is just subjective. “Having fans that sustain you” vs. “not having fans” is really the differentiator in today’s market. Crafting entertainment that engages a specific audience is what will propel your career forward. Even if Taylor Swift doesn’t hold on to the overwhelming amount of popular attention she has now, the teens that have embraced her album now will be the adults that support her on tour in twenty years.

Two trends explain this. First, American pop culture has become very much about tearing down the things that you don’t personally like. It’s the “awesome/sucks” phenomenon. Second, I think there’s still a “zero sum game” fear that someone like Taylor Swift garners attention that could be lavished on someone else. Again, it doesn’t matter. If you define “success” as being able to quick your day job and play music full time, you have “made it.” At that point, playing the Grammycast is just gravy.