You Don’t Have to Hug Your Fans

 

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Building fan love doesn’t mean pandering to your audience. Radiohead, which dropped its new album A Moon Shaped Pool digitally May 8, builds fan devotion by challenging and even confounding its audience, which is the right approach for a group whose music has always been one step ahead of everyone.

Radiohead’s actions in recent days — sending weird postcards to select fans and erasing its digital presence briefly — flies in the face of the “Taylor Swift lessons on customer engagement” articles that are floating all around the Internet. The Taylor Swift school of fan engagement emphasizes accessibility and warmth, with Taytay constantly flogging social media and bending over backward to return fan love. But Radiohead creates fan love through a mystique that approaches aloofness. Both artists demonstrate the importance of engaging fans in a way that’s right for your brand, which is truly a lesson that applies to any business, whether you’re an exclusive Louis Vuitton or crowd-pleasing Motel 6.

Radiohead certainly reaches out to its fans, but in its own peculiar way. For instance, the weekend of April 29, some of its fans received a vaguely worded leaflet with the sinister message, “We Know Where You Live.”

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Puzzled fans posted the leaflets on social media, triggering what would turn out to be accurate speculation that Radiohead was about to drop some new music.

But Radiohead wasn’t finished. On May 1, fans began to notice that the band’s Internet presence was disappearing. Its website gradually faded to black, its tweets began to vanish, and the band removed its Facebook content. Yup: Radiohead literally cut its digital cord, including its presence on the world’s largest social media network.

The silence didn’t last long, though. On May 3, the band posted on Instagram a 15-second clip of a stop-motion bird tweeting, followed by a clip of animated figures accompanied by staccato music.

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As it turns out, fading to black and posting some enigmatic images was a prelude to the release of real music: the strange, scary song “Burn the Witch” on May 3 (where the chirping birds and animated figures appear) and then the appropriately titled “Daydreaming,” directed by P.T. Anderson, on May 6.

Oh, and the band reactivated its digital presence to let everyone know a new album was coming digitally on May 8 (because why not a dose of Radiohead for Mother’s Day?) and in physical form June 17. In typical Radiohead fashion, no other details were supplied — no title, no album art, just release dates.

Not exactly the warmest and fuzziest way to super serve your fans, is it?

But that’s how Radiohead rolls. This is a band that knows how to build fan loyalty by being unpredictable and progressive, such as surprise releasing the album In Rainbows online in 2007 accompanied by the we-don’t-give-a-crap move of allowing fans to set their own price for the download. Give Beyoncé all the credit she deserves for dropping new albums with no advance notice, but it was Radiohead that pioneered the concept. And then there was the time Radiohead decided to publish an old-fashioned print newspaper, The Universal Sigh, to accompany the release of the 2011 album King of Limbs. Not only was the distribution of a print newspaper in the digital age a typically against-the-grain Radiohead move, The Universal Sigh was full of stories, poems, and other content that kept everyone guessing as to its meaning.

Creating this kind of mystique is perfect for Radiohead. Its music is, at turns, enigmatic, confounding, and thoughtful — music that manages to remain popular even while sometimes dividing critics and listeners. To follow Radiohead is to immerse yourself in the jagged guitar and off-kilter drums that shaped OK Computer only to have the band change courses completely with the atmospheric, abstract sounds on Kid A. Indeed, critics have described its music at times as “intentionally difficult” although by and large, the band is a critic’s darling for constantly reinventing its sound.

Taylor Swift doesn’t give a hang about mystique, nor should she. She is all about accessibility. She connects as personally with her fans as a pop star can. When she released her massive-selling album 1989 in October 2014, she surprised a few lucky fans by holding “secret sessions” consisting of exclusive previews of the album. She even brought home-baked cookies to the sessions. She is a constant presence on social media, commenting on her life, sharing visual stories, and reaching out to her fans on their own social accounts. Her social content is genuine, earning accolades from branding experts. Through social, she excels at “treating your fans like friends,” in the words of interactive marketing executive Joshua Swanson.

Taylor Swift hugs her fans. Radiohead challenges them, as Pink Floyd did at the height of their popularity.

Both approaches work. Billboard recently named Taylor Swift the top moneymaker of 2015. Radiohead has sold 30 million albums over the years — perhaps the only popular band still in existence that successfully relies on record sales, not singles, to build a fan base. Its new song “Burn the Witch” was viewed more than 8 million times within the first few days of its release, and pretty much the Internet went nuts following the band’s digital odyssey this past week. Its 2016 tour, playing limited dates, is expected to be highly successful. Just don’t expect Radiohead to serve cookies at the concerts.

I’m not suggesting that businesses examine the Radiohead approach for some pearls of wisdom. The larger point is that even in an age of customer empowerment, when your fans can say what they want about you on social media and demand rapid response, how you engage with your customers depends on the kind of brand you are building, and it’s a mistake to pander to fans. For instance, you won’t find warm fuzzies on the Prada website — as of this writing, the front page is actually jarring and even off putting after a few moments. For that matter, Red Bull doesn’t exactly hug its fans — Red Bull gets in their faces. Neither brand is rude, per se, but their choice of content and tone in their outreach creates a certain edge.

Always understand your brand’s north star — what you stand for. And then find an approach to fan engagement that works for your brand.

Will the Music Industry Enjoy an “Adele Effect”?

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When Forbes publishes its annual list of highest-earning musicians in December, Adele’s name will surely be on it. Her astronomical album sales, even surpassing the standards of the pre-digital era, will be a large part of the story. Within its first seven weeks of release, 25 had sold 15 million copies worldwide, including about 8 million in the United States. 25 set a new record for most album sales in one week, an incredible feat given that 25 was released in the digital age. She also made headlines for refusing to stream 25, joining Taylor Swift and other artists who have protested that streaming services fail to compensate artists fairly and cannibalize music sales. Adele’s success has also raised the possibility that record albums, after experiencing years of declining sales, might come back in 2016, with the rising tide of 25 lifting all boats. Will the music industry enjoy an “Adele effect,” or is Adele’s success an anomaly?

Are Record Albums Coming Back?

Without question, 25 refocused attention on the album,. As journalist Chris Willman wrote in Billboard, “[W]hat Adele has really revived, more than any style, is the primacy of the album as an emotional experience that a single digital track is not equipped to provide . . . Voices matter. Albums, against all odds, matter. Honestly jerked tears still matter. And when you can give a parched populace all these things, we’ve now learned, they will follow you to the ends of the earth . . . which we now know to be the downsized CD section at Target.”

In other words, great music delivered in album-length form matters. And Willman has a point. Adele is not the only one making critically acclaimed received record albums that also sell. For example:

  • Ed Sheeran’s X, released in 2014, has sold 10 million copies globally.

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  • Taylor Swift’s 1989 has sold 8.6 million globally.

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  • Justin Bieber’s Purpose, considered a comeback critically and commercially for Bieber, has sold 1.2 million copies.

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  • Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, released in February 2015, has sold 1.1 million units (even though Drake claimed it wasn’t an album proper).

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  • Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, while not achieving the coveted 1-million-selling platinum status, went gold and then some, selling close to 800,000 units.

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There are more big albums to come: Drake (again), Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, Katy Perry, and Kanye West are among the megastars dropping albums in 2016. All of them are capable of moving big numbers, too. Meantime, Rihanna’s Anti, released on January 28, went platinum in 15 hours — thanks to Samsung, which bought 1 million copies and gave them away as part of a promotion.

Even more promising is that younger artists who came of age in the digital era still make record albums even though they have every reason to venerate the power of singles. As Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic noted in 2015, millennial-era artists, such as Tyler, the Creator, and Kendrick Lamar, have made it a point to release major musical statements intended to be enjoyed as albums. And musicians continue to rely on striking album cover art to express their personal visions and market their music.

Not So Fast

But despite some high-profile examples of albums selling like crazy, the numbers don’t lie: album sales continue to slide. According to the 2015 Nielsen Music U.S. Report, total album sales (including compact discs, digital, and LP/vinyl) fell 6.1 percent in 2015, from 257 million units sold to 241 million units sold. (One bright spot: vinyl sales actually increased, from 9.2 million to 11.9 million.) Another telling statistic: sales of catalog albums (18 months or older) outperformed new albums, meaning that consumers were not buying what artists were selling in 2015. On the other hand, the rate of decline slowed — in 2014, album sales fell 11.2 percent.

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Millennials and Old People Rule the Music World

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Music fans have always reserved the right to identify with the popular artists of their time while harshly judging the tastes of the generations that follow them.

Those who came of age during World War II had Frank Sinatra, and they recoiled in horror when children of the 1950s embraced Elvis Presley. Today’s highest-earning musicians reflect the tastes of two of the largest generations alive in America, baby boomers and millennials, but their tastes are fairly complementary. The influence of baby boomers and millennials on music is the subject of today’s post, which is part of a series that examines the broader themes evident in the Forbes ranking of 2015’s highest paid musicians.

The annual Forbes list, created by Zack O’Malley Greenburg, is a snapshot of the music industry. In 2015, O’Malley Greenburg ranked 30 musicians, who reflect genres ranging from country to hip-hop. Collectively, they earned nearly $1.5 billion. All of them made huge bucks. The lowest ranking musicians, Dr. Dre and Maroon 5, made $33 million each. The entire list looks like this:

Rank Name Amount Earned
1 Katy Perry $135 million
2 One Direction $130 million
3 Garth Brooks $90 million
4 Taylor Swift $80 million
5 The Eagles $73.5 million
6 Calvin Harris $66 million
7 Justin Timberlake $63.5 million
8 Diddy $60 million
9 Fleetwood Mac $59.5 million
10 Lady Gaga $59 million
11 The Rolling Stones $57.5 million
12 Ed Sheeran $57 million
13 Jay Z $56 million
14 Beyonce $54.5 million
15 Elton John $53.5 million
16 Toby Keith $53 million
17 Paul McCartney $51.5 million
18 Michael Buble $45.4 million
19 Jason Aldean $43.5 million
20 Luke Bryan $42.5 million
21 Kenny Chesney $42 million
22 Bruno Mars $40 million
23 Drake $39.5 million
24 Foo Fighters $38 million
Tim McGraw $38 million
26 David Guetta $37 million
27 Florida Georgia Line $36.5 million
28 Jimmy Buffett $36 million
Tiesto $36 million
30 Maroon 5 $33 million
Dr. Dre $33 million

Many of the names on this list, ranging from the Rolling Stones to Justin Timberlake, reflect the collective tastes of baby boomers and millennials, who comprise 158.5 million Americans, or about half the total U.S. population. (Millennials overtook baby boomers as the largest age block in 2015.). Both groups continue to influence American culture even as more baby boomers age their way out of the work force each year.

Baby Boomer Acts: Adapting to New Rules

The top earners of the baby boomer era — Jimmy Buffett, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Garth Brooks, Elton John, Toby Keith, Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones — represent the last gasp of an age when musicians could build careers by releasing million-selling albums and then touring to boost the album sales. They are all white, reflecting the whiteness of the baby boomer generation.

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Will the Women of Country Music Flourish in 2016?

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Country music produced several big moneymaking superstars in 2015, but none of them were women. To wit: in December, Zack O’Malley Greenburg of Forbes published his annual list of the world’s highest-paid musicians. Of the 30 names on the list, seven were country stars, and, boy, did they make some serious bucks. Garth Brooks came out of retirement to earn $90 million, making him the third highest earning musician of 2015 in any genre. And he had plenty of company among the men of country:

Rank Name Amount Earned
3 Garth Brooks $90 million
16 Toby Keith $53 million
19 Jason Aldean $43.5 million
20 Luke Bryan $42.5 million
21 Kenny Chesney $42 million
24 Tim McGraw $38 million
27 Florida Georgia Line $36.5 million

Those seven performers earned $345.5 million through extensive touring, a few new albums, product endorsements, and brand extensions. But where are the women superstars?

According to Billboard, country female artists are landing fewer charting singles and albums compared to men. Taylor Swift, the only female with country roots on the Forbes list, was the fourth highest earning musician in 2015, making $80 million. But her success came from touring as a cross-over artist with a pop album, 1989, which underscores the reality that women who stick to country are not dominating country music like men are. Similarly, country breakthrough star Kacey Musgraves was nowhere to be found at the 2015 CMA Festival, a big-time event hosted by the Country Music Association. She was playing the mainstream Bonnaroo Music Festival, supporting a perception that women in country need to find success elsewhere.

The Rise of Bro Country Continue reading

Meet the New Music Moguls

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How do the world’s highest-paid musicians make their money? Not by making music.

As shown in the Forbes list of the world’s highest paid musicians of 2015, elite stars cash in from touring, forming endorsement deals with brands, and by launching their own business ventures. Consumers just don’t buy enough recorded music anymore to support the performers we say we love.

The annual Forbes list, created by Zack O’Malley Greenburg, is a snapshot of the music industry and as such offers some clues about those who create music and those of us who listen to it. My analysis of the list uncovers a number of trends, such as the influence of baby boomer and millennial-era consumers and the dearth of women superstars in country music. I’ll explore those topics in future posts in my series on the world’s biggest musical moneymakers. Today’s post focuses on how successful stars have become moguls, extending their reach beyond music into businesses such as spirits, food, and clothing.

An Industry Snapshot Continue reading

Adele and Taylor Swift: The Diva and the BFF

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Adele and Taylor Swift succeed by writing and performing personal songs that connect emotionally with a fan base consisting mostly of women. But they have pursued markedly different approaches to building their personal brands, demonstrating that superstars can write their own rules.

Taylor Swift, who turned 26 December 13, is all about accessibility. She saturates the public eye by courting the news media, being open on social media, touring heavily, and doing endorsement deals that keep her face visible. But she’s not only ever present; she also connects as personally with her fans as a pop star can. When she released her massive-selling album 1989 in October 2014, she surprised a few lucky fans by holding “secret sessions” consisting of exclusive previews of the album. She even brought baked cookies to the sessions. She is a constant presence on social media, commenting on her life, sharing visual stories, and reaching out to her fans on their own social accounts. Her social content is genuine, earning accolades from branding experts. Through social, she excels at “treating your fans like friends,” in the words of interactive marketing executive Joshua Swanson.

Adele cultivates mystique. She is not quite a private diva like Barbra Streisand was in the 1970s, but she’s nowhere near as accessible as Taylor Swift is. She has tweeted a total of 20 times in 2015 (as of December 11), and she vets everything she tweets. Her social posts usually consist of bland news about her career. Adele maintains a private reserve. She does not do commercial endorsements. There is a sense of vulnerability about her, informed by her real-life experience of enduring a career-threatening throat ailment in 2011. She is only 27, but she seems like an old soul.

Taylor Swift creates moments. Adele creates The Moment. In 2008, Adele broke through to U.S. audiences by owning a huge moment: an appearance on Saturday Night Live in which she sang “Chasing Pavements” and “Cold Shoulder” from 19. The appearance triggered a spike in sales for 19 and made her a superstar in the States. She marked the release of 25 with another highly publicized and well-received Saturday Night Live appearance that created a surge in SNL viewership. She followed up SNL with appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and TODAY and will broadcast a one-hour special concert December 14 on NBC (it’s a prolific time for NBC and Adele).

Adele is well suited for engineering giant moments that rely on the reach of mass media such as TV. She can use her powerful voice and commanding physical presence to make an impact through a televised concert. Television is not as kind to Taylor Swift. Her lighter voice and willowy presence seem small when she performs on televised events such as The Grammys. She is better off creating her own moments on social media and in her own well choreographed concerts and videos, where she can surround herself with a stage that plays up her assets. Each stop in her global, 85-show 1989 tour has triggered branding micro moments as fans capture the experience through Instagram, Tumbler, Twitter, and other social platforms. Her tradition of sending personal gifts to fans (moments she has documented on YouTube), dubbed “Swiftmas,” is a brilliant example of Swift at her best (even if she did attract some snarky criticism for attempting to trademark the term).

Both Adele and Taylor Swift are protective of their music, famously withholding their albums from streaming services such as Spotify. In 2014, Swift withdrew all her music from Spotify because she believes Spotify hurts music sales and fails to compensate artists properly (a view that is shared by many, to say the least). Adele restricted 25 from streaming services (and had initially done so for her last album, 21) to protect music sales.

This is not to say that they’ve withheld their music from the digital realm — far from it. On December 13, Swift announced she would stream her 1989 world tour video exclusively on Apple Music December 20 as part of a broader co-branding relationship. Meantime, Adele’s single “Hello” has become the second-fastest video ever to hit 100 million YouTube views ever. Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” have more than 2.5 billion views between them as of December 11. “Hello” and “Shake It Off” also express the distinct personas of these two superstars: the moody “Hello” dramatizes Adele’s brooding romanticism while the quirky and playful “Shake It Off” celebrates Swift’s chirpy optimism.

Their strategies are working handsomely. Billboard recently named Taylor Swift its top artist for 2015. 1989 is only the fifth album to spend its first year in the weekly Billboard 200’s top 10. As of December, her 1989 concert tour had grossed $240 million. She is the first and only artist to have three albums sell more than one million copies in the opening release week. 1989 has sold 5.4 million units, and even though the album was released in 2014, it was the top seller of 2014 — until Adele’s 25 became the year’s biggest seller only three days after its November 20 release.

As of December 11, Adele’s 25 has sold 5 million copies, the first album to sell 5 million in a calendar year since her last album, 21, was released in 2011. In its first week of release, 25 sold more than 3 million copies, setting a new record for most album sales in a single week — a feat even more impressive when you consider that the previous record holder, NSYNC, achieved its massive numbers before the era of digital downloading and streaming. At one point, 25 was accounting for nearly half of all music sales.

But most importantly, Adele and Taylor Swift share a commitment to writing personal songs about their lives, oftentimes about the ups and downs of relationships. They have inherited the mantel of heartfelt singer-songwriter from the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Nicks. By drawing upon universal themes such as the heartbreak of loss, the joy of independence and sexual liberation, and the pleasures of growing up, Adele and Taylor Swift write songs that appeal to a broad audience. Their personal brands extend the reach of their songs even more widely.

What works for Adele and Taylor Swift may not work for lesser-known artists although Swift’s accessibility to fans and brands is a more advisable route for unknowns attempting to build their reputations. It remains to be seen whether lesser artists can afford to avoid streaming like Adele and Taylor Swift have done. Few musicians have the clout they possess. But if the up and comers can make it to their elite level, Adele and Taylor Swift demonstrate that successful artists can still write their own rules even in the fractured music industry.

#Kanye2020: Brilliant Branding, Bro

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 8.53.29 PM The Kanye West brand is like a Ferrari careening down a highway. Sometimes you want to watch the spectacle. Other times you want to get out of the way. And then there are times when you wish you were in the front seat. Kanye’s recent presidential election announcement makes me want to grab the steering wheel.

Kanye launched his #Kanye2020 campaign August 30 during the MTV Video Music Awards, where he received the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, presented by none other than Taylor Swift. Obviously, MTV engineered the moment to create fireworks and ratings. After all, Kanye and Swift were parties to one of the most awkward moments in TV history in 2009, when Kanye ungraciously dissed Smith onstage for winning a video award he believed she did not deserve. Although the two have mended fences since then, they are hardly BFFs, and Kanye West is unpredictable under any circumstance. What kind of Kanye would accept the award from Swift? A defiant Kanye? Bombastic, perhaps?

Well, Kanye hijacked the moment from MTV, refusing to take the bait. Instead, he delivered a rambling but fascinating discourse on art, self-acceptance, and media manipulation that had the crowd cheering for several minutes. He admitted to making mistakes in the way he expressed himself and his passion for art (an obvious reference to the 2009 incident) but affirmed his love of art and the power of ideas, before announcing his bid for presidency.

The audience was eating out of his hands, even if no one was entirely certain they understood what he was talking about. He had engineered his mic drop.

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6 Predictions for Music Streaming

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Forget Taylor Swift’s futile Spotify boycott. The real news emerging from the music industry this week was the launch of YouTube’s streaming service. The new service consists of YouTube with streaming functionality (as opposed to being a new product with a different name, thus benefitting from YouTube’s brand reach). On November 17, YouTube is also launching (in beta form) YouTube Music Key, a paid streaming option offering ad-free online and offline listening for $9.99. YouTube now enters an increasingly crowded streaming industry that ranges from all-purpose services such as Pandora and Spotify to specialty offerings such as Muzooka (which matches emerging artists with both fans and members of the music industry). And YouTube, owned by the world’s most valuable brand, has more power to disrupt the game than anyone. In the aftermath of YouTube’s entry to the streaming field, I predict six possible directions for the streaming business:

1. We will see a shakeout among major streaming platforms. The survivors, faced with fewer competitors, will call the shots on artist compensation even more so than they do today.

2. We may see the emergence of a few more specialty streaming services, such as Muzooka, to act as the intriguing alternatives to big players. For instance, we could see an alternative boutique streaming service by an artist consortia (involving someone like Jay Z, whose brand transcends music). We also may see the launch of private-label services from music-savvy brands such as Pepsi. A house service by an American Express, offered exclusively to its customers, could act as an effective music discovery platform as well as a customer acquisition and retention tool. (Moreover, in a combination of the artist-owned and corporate private label approaches, we could see a a corporate service launched in association with a star like Jay Z acting as investor, brand partner, curator, or any combination of those roles.)

3. The conversation about fair artist compensation that Taylor Swift reignited with her Spotify boycott will subside without effecting any change in artist compensation, just as the debate eventually petered out after Thom Yorke and the Black Keys boycotted Spotify. Another artist may make the topic trend again with a well-publicized boycott, but the conversation will remain contained to pundits who won’t move the needle.

4. The have-not artists — the vast majority of artists who are not superstars — will keep their content on streaming services and continue to be compensated as they are now. Why? Because they lack the choices that Taylor Swift has.

5. Savvy artists will learn how to use streaming as a promotional platform together with other digital platforms. They will rely on their recorded content to support touring, merchandising, song licensing revenue, and co-brands with businesses.

6. Finally, and most importantly: fans will continue to stream music, legally or illegally (as they are doing with Taylor Swift’s new album, 1989). When it comes to music streaming, fans are loyal to songs, not artists. Fans don’t care about boycotts. And fans are no longer willing to risk money on an entire album’s worth of songs from artists they do not know. Fans don’t necessarily take time to write Wall Street Journal editorials about fair compensation or blog posts about the future of streaming. Fans simply shape the future of music with their listening and buying habits. Album sales continue to slide, and Apple’s iTunes business is slumping. As Adele’s manager, Jonathan Dickins, says, “Streaming is the future.” Why? Because fans make it so.

Oh, and here’s one more related prediction you can take to the bank: Taylor Swift will continue to build her empire from touring, brand deals, and merchandising sales. Any revenue lost from boycotting Spotify will have little impact on her success. The release of the album 1989 in 2014 is all about priming the pump for the 1989 World Tour, which kicks off in May 2015 — which is where the real money is going to be made. (Her Red tour, which concluded in 2014, grossed $150 million.) Taylor Swift’s approach to building her career — writing her own songs, creating music that crosses genres, building a fan base through touring, and honoring her fans in person and on social media — is the blueprint for aspiring artists to emulate. And artists will need to include streaming in the process.

What are your predictions?