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Why Taylor Swift is powerful enough to shake off Spotify

Singer Taylor Swift performs on ABC's "Good Morning America" to promote her new album "1989" in New York, October 30, 2014.

LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

The haters, Taylor Swift says, can hate, hate, hate all they want: she'll choose which players can play her music.

Ms. Swift's music disappeared from the popular music streaming service Spotify on Monday, prompting the company to issue a clever, lovelorn letter to the crossover pop star: "We were both young when we first saw you, but now there's more than 40 million of us who want you to stay, stay, stay. It's a love story, baby, just say, Yes."

Of course, Ms. Swift has learned in her short career to push against such advances and look forward, not back. Her teenaged country music stardom earned her enough clout to cross over seamlessly into pop, and from there, to the top of even more charts. In doing so, she has earned the ability – rare in the music industry – to do business as she pleases.

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Today, that means cutting ties with streaming music services. Less than a week after her fifth studio album, 1989, was released, her music has been wiped from global leader Spotify.

But Ms. Swift's decision on streaming services appears to be selective. Her music is no longer available on Deezer, another global streaming service based in France. But in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail, a representative from San Francisco-based Rdio said the company "is thrilled to continue providing Taylor Swift's amazing songs for our subscription customers worldwide who listen to her wherever, whenever they want." The Globe has reached out to Spotify for further reaction.

A publicist for Ms. Swift did not immediately return a request for comment. Ms. Swift has, however, gone on the record as a music-industry optimist and album-sales defender. "The value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace," she wrote in The Wall Street Journal in July.

And while her reasoning for this specific move is unclear, the timing could not be more calculated. Just weeks after it was pointed out that no record released in 2014 had yet gone platinum, Ms. Swift is in the enviable position to break that trend, and perhaps even shatter it. Her new album is on track to sell more than a million in its first week, potentially surpassing the world record for one-week album sales by a woman. Britney Spears has owned that trophy since 2000, when her album Oops!...I Did It Again sold 1.319 million copies in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Hard-core Taylor Swift fans have no doubt already bought 1989. But by removing her music from Spotify, and potentially other streaming services, Ms. Swift is forcing fair-weather fans to actually buy her album, hopefully giving her the sales bump she needs to surpass Ms. Spears' album.

It is a shrewd business decision, if a little antiquated, but that is Ms. Swift's modus operandi. She has been called out – criticized would be an unfair word – for being "the sort of megastar who always plays by the rules." She favours "safe" record releases and their traditional pomp and circumstance rather than, say, Beyoncé-style surprise album drops or corporate-sponsor-aided strategies tried by the likes of Jay Z with Samsung or U2 with Apple.

By succeeding without being a rule-breaker, Ms. Swift is, paradoxically, breaking the rules: She needs no viral marketing strategy to sell records. She just needs to be herself. Her name carries enough weight to actually sell enough records to please the aging major-label business model.

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If Ms. Swift beats Beyoncé in sales, Kanye West may no longer be the only person frustrated. Ms. Swift and her label, Big Machine, tend to prefer "windowing" her releases on streaming services – leaving a window of time between its official release and its streaming debut. 1989, though, never appeared. Removing her whole back catalogue in addition to that is a non-confidence vote against the streaming industry, and may convince other artists to try it, too. If Ms. Swift can slow the broader adoption of streaming, the biggest losers here could be the format's fans.

Streaming music services are already straining to get into the black, in some cases by trying to expand their their catalogues to include the entire history recorded music. But Ms. Swift's strategy doesn't have to pay heed to their needs if they mean trouble for her own. By silencing these less lucrative channels for consuming her music, Ms. Swift gets to control the narrative, forcing people to buy.

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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. More

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