Taylor Swift has written an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal about the future of the music industry. She claims that reports on the death of the album are greatly exaggerated. Sure, people purchase fewer of them, but they want to own music from their favorite artists, even if they spend a lot of time listening to forgettable dance tunes on streaming services. Swift does say that one common physical artifact of the music industry is doomed: the autograph. Does she have this backwards?
“I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera,” writes Swift. “The only memento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie. It’s part of the new currency, which seems to be ‘how many followers you have on Instagram.’”
Taylor Swift’s memory may be faulty. The first iPhone model to have such a camera was the iPhone 4, which came out in June 2010. This was a pre-selfie-freakout phenomenon; at the time, the camera was seen as a neat tool for video chats. Swift spent 13 hours signing autographs at the Country Music Festival in 2011, and she obliged pen-toting fans at the Toronto Film Festival in September, again at a taping of Good Morning America last December, and surely at dozens of events every year. Maybe Swift means that people no longer ask her to sign things—they just get near her and start screaming hysterically.
You don’t even have to ask Swift to sign something directly. Like many celebrities, she deals in industrial-scale autograph peddling. Swift’s website offers a range of expensive, signed merchandise such as this $350 poster.
Swift’s selfie comparison is well-chosen, though. Having a photograph taken with a singer seems more personal than thrusting a sharpie through a scrum of teenagers in hopes that someone will grab it and use it to write her name on something that she then hands to you. You can’t buy a genuine selfie on TaylorSwift.com.
So: album sales. Swift says she is invested in albums counting as “economic entities.” One way to achieve this would be to emulate the humble autograph rather than deride it. Swift argues that people will buy albums “that hit them like an arrow through the heart, or have made them feel strong, or allowed them to feel like they really aren’t alone in feeling so alone.” You could stream those songs on Spotify, too. Physical music sales have cratered, and even digital downloads are now losing ground to streaming services. The physical album will probably be around for awhile, but the trends are going against it.
Albums were once how you gained access to music while acquiring an attractive piece of cover art and a way to impress people who saw your collection. You don’t need an album as a conduit of musical work these days. But a certain appeal persists: If albums have a future, it’s probably as trophies, to display in the same way you’d show off the selfie you took with a singer—or, yes Taylor, the autograph you asked her for. Sure, they’re useless. But souvenirs don’t have to be good for anything.