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The Expanse of Taylor Swift
Party like it's 1989
Taylor Swift is a cultural juggernaut. Her latest project is without precedent. Pre-sale ticket records are being broken. The online platform that handles ticket booking crashed within minutes of sales going live. By negotiating a new type of contract Swift may have changed the business model of an entire industry. People view seeing Taylor Swift not as going to a show, but as attending a seminal cultural event. She may single-handily reinvigorate a declining industry.
I’m not talking about The Eras Tour, which is on track to be the biggest concert tour in history. I’m talking about the Eras Tour Movie.
Announced unexpectedly in August, “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” will be a concert film compiled from the concerts she held at SoFi Stadium in California. It is expected to be released to over 4,000 theaters in North America on October 13th. The film is unique in that the theater chain AMC Theaters will be the distributor and exhibitor of the film, something that has never happened in the American film industry. That alone caused severe consternation, as studios scrambled to move their movies and avoid a head-to-head conflict with the film event of the season.
The biggest shift was the highly anticipated Exorcist sequel, the release date of which was moved from October 13 to October 6 (pity the poor studio head that realized there would be a Friday the 13th in October that aligned perfectly with this film years ago, but then had Swift come in and take the date at the last minute). Moving The Exorcist seems like a missed opportunity; after the success of “Barbenheimer”, “The Exor-Swift” would have been a great second mashup. And in all honesty, how many people would be debating between seeing a Taylor Swift concert move vs. a demonic horror flick? The overlap can’t be that big. Beyond that, the ripple effects extended past those immediately impacted. Because The Exorcist movie moved to October 6th, the new John Cena movie “Freelance” was moved from October 6th to October 27th. The entire film industry had to recalibrate around a concert film announced two months in advance. That alone is a testament to the influence of Taylor Swift.
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Of course, nothing compares to the Eras Tour itself. To date, the highest-grossing tour of all time was Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, which lasted for five years, consisted of over 300 shows and pulled in $939 million. Correcting for inflation, the highest-grossing tour is U2’s 360° Tour which made the equivalent of $958 million today over 110 shows. Both will likely pale in comparison to the Eras Tour. A lot will depend on how many shows Swift ultimately performs, but the heretofore unreached billion-dollar tour mark is going to be shattered. One research firm is predicting an astonishing $2.2 billion gross from ticket sales alone. Comparing the Eras Tour to the highest-grossing movies or most valuable sports franchises or anything else shows there is no parallel. Economic records are usually set incrementally, where the new record holder is often 10 percent greater than the previous iteration. The idea that a musician could more than double the previous tour record seems impossible. Yet it’s happening before our eyes.
It also seems likely that the Eras Tour remains alone at the top. Given Swift’s current fame, people wanting to go to events after the Covid Pandemic, and relatively healthy world economy, the tour came at the perfect time to set records. It’s not farfetched to think that the Eras Tour will be looked on in a hundred years much like the film “Gone with the Wind” is today, which is still the highest-grossing movie of all time after accounting for inflation. Will anyone, other than Swift herself, be able to replicate the kind of demand and buzz the Eras Tour has generated?
One thing I find interesting is the sense of inevitability of Swift's success, the existence of which must be the product of hindsight bias. There was nothing inevitable about Swift. Her success is the result of a tremendous 15 years of work without contemporary equal. When Swift's first number-one album, “Fearless”, was released in 2008, it was clear that Swift was a star, but far from certain she would become the star. At the time there was even a mild backlash against her for leaving her country roots and being too poppy. She was also very much a girl’s musician. It wasn’t evident that she would be able to build wider appeal.
In fact, at the time she was one of several solo female artists jockeying for position. Looking back today, 2008 was quite a year for albums. Adele released “19”. Katy Perry released “One of the Boys”. Both would be smash hits and catapult their creators into fame overnight. On top of those two up-and-comers, Pink released “Funhouse”. Then there was that small Beyoncé album, “I Am... Sasha Fierce”. That album put Beyoncé and Taylor Swift head-to-head for a VMA award, which led to the biggest awards moment controversy in recent years, at least until Will Smith slapped Chris Rock.
Already quite a year, and that doesn’t account for the biggest album of 2008, “The Fame” by Lady Gaga. At the time, there was a lot of talk that Lady Gaga was going to be the next Madonna (who, by the way, has the soon-to-be-broken record for the most concert revenue by a solo female artist, at $1.5 billion). That seemed premature to me, but I remember getting into many debates with people who were convinced Lady Gaga was going to be the number-one artist for decades to come. My bet would have been on Katy Perry, who would go on to release “Teenage Dream” in 2010, an album that would be only the second in history to have five number-one singles.
That isn’t to say that Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, or Beyoncé are slouches. They have all had incredible careers. I just would not have picked Taylor Swift to be the one who moved into a class of her own. The numbers, again, are astonishing. Every studio album Swift has released since “Fearless” has hit number one on the US charts, and that includes three rereleases. Politicians are asking for her to add tour dates in their city. The Philadelphia branch of the Fed mentioned her economic impact in a recent report. After Taylor Swift watched a Kansas City Chief’s game next to Travis Kelce’s mother, the tight end’s jersey sales spiked by 400 percent.
Given today’s fractured media landscape, where people can stream hundreds of shows, award-winning movies are released on Apple TV, and one can play almost any song in existence on their phone for free, I would have said Swift’s rise to cultural dominance was impossible for any artist. There’s just too much choice. Centralized power structures across media are being reshaped or broken down entirely. Yet here we are. Taylor Swift is going to break every tour record, and maybe even a few movie records as well. Enjoy the moment.