Taylor Swift's Global Popularity Explained (Berklee's Version)

Music business, songwriting, and live production faculty weigh in on what makes Taylor Swift unstoppable.

June 4, 2024

On the evening of July 23, 2023, at the Lumen Field in Seattle, Washington, Taylor Swift shook the earth.

Registering at 2.3 magnitude on a seismograph, the combination of a stadium full of flailing fans and a massive sound system pounding out the song “Shake It Off” (of course) created the event. As seismologist Jackie Caplan-Auerbach says of the measurement, which was gathered from a range of shows on the North American leg of the Eras tour, “I collected about 10 hours of data where rhythm controlled the behavior. The music, the speakers, the beat. All that energy can drive into the ground and shake it.”

This was not the only time a performance on Swift’s Eras Tour, which has become the highest grossing concert tour of all time (and it’s not even finished), resulted in seismic activity. Researchers from CalTech and UCLA measured the impact from the August 2023 performances at the SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Perhaps even stranger, when Caplan-Auerbach compared the seismograph charts from both of the Seattle shows, the readings were nearly identical, charting almost the same peaks and lulls.

When people talk about how music can “change the world,” it’s hard to think of any other case more literal and without exaggeration than Taylor Swift. How she got to the cosmic heights of pop stardom from the small borough of West Reading, Pennsylvania—otherwise known for its large outlet malls—is a multifaceted journey. While the core of her career is her songwriting, she approaches marketing, brand management, audience engagement, and live production with the same level of intention, relatability, and quality that she brings to her music.

Her Approach Is Family-Oriented

Ralph Jaccodine, professor of music business, who has worked with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Hall & Oates, Linda Ronstadt, and many more, says that Swift’s business plan has always stayed close to her roots, which is partly why she’s been consistently great over the long haul. “Taylor’s family has been an extremely important and positive influence on her development as a musician and a business person,” he said. “Taylor’s mom, dad, and brother have been her original team since she was a young, ambitious, and driven musician. This consistent grounding and support are important elements to her success.”

That sense of family also comes through in her songs, as any Swiftie will tell you. The songs are more than catchy—they’re relatable. Scarlet Keys, professor of songwriting, has studied the craft of Taylor Swift for years and developed the Berklee course Music of Taylor Swift. But like Jaccodine suggests, Keys has observed that beyond craft is a feeling of trust and intimacy that hits close to home.

“For years, I’ve witnessed the impact of Taylor Swift in my own home with my daughter,” she said. With each new song about love or heartbreak, Keys noticed that her daughter and her friends felt like they were living side by side with Swift. “It was so important for them to have a voice that sounded like theirs, offering support, hope, and sometimes, solutions. It was almost like she was film scoring their lives along with them, and they didn't feel as alone.”

Her Live Performances Somehow Feel Intimate

Certainly one place where you’d never feel alone is at a Taylor Swift concert. At the same time, Swift’s approach to stagecraft and live production has somehow managed to make the experience feel personal. “Taylor Swift's Eras Tour represents a paradigm shift in live music performances, primarily attributed to its unprecedented success in both scale and intimacy,” said Daniel Pembroke, program director for Berklee NYC’s live music production and design graduate program. “This confluence of top-tier talent allows for the execution of expansive productions that maintain a sense of intimacy despite the vastness of stadium settings. The strategic use of diverse stage layouts further enhances the personal engagement with the audience.”

Pembroke also points out that Swift’s use of cutting-edge technology “underscores her commitment to delivering a visually and acoustically superior experience.” This includes her use of real-time 3-D simulators and infrared technology that work alongside traditional lighting, LED, and projection surfaces that allow for immersive, customized moments throughout each show.

She is a brand that is evolving with each release.

— Ralph Jaccodine

Making use of such high-level resources also played to Swift’s advantage when turning the Eras Tour into what became the highest grossing concert film of all time. “Anticipating that a live concert will be filmed demands a unique approach to both lighting and staging,” Pembroke said, adding that the tech needed for live production and filming purposes are “two different worlds.” This approach gets even more challenging when considering that the film was created and released—theatrically and then as a Disney+ exclusive—while the actual tour was still going. “This setup promotes seamless integration of live and recorded formats,” Pembroke said.

Her Brand Is Truly Personal

Technological innovation and marketing acumen alone do not necessarily guarantee success, or at least not at a Swiftian height. Rather, these elements support and enhance her personal and artistic growth. “She is a brand that is evolving with each release,” Jaccodine said, noting that her ability to go directly to fans via social media has made it feel like they are along for the journey.

And while that’s a savvy business move on her part, Pembroke points out that it’s also changing different aspects of the music industry. “Swift's approach to creating fan-centric experiences through strategic seating and venue interactions exemplifies a shift towards more personalized and immersive live events,” he said. “This strategy, while not entirely new, has been amplified by Swift's influence, potentially reshaping audience expectations and industry standards in live music production.”

Keys adds that you can pick up on this growth in her lyrics as well. “She still writes about breakups and love but has branched out into new topics, like her song, ‘You Need to Calm Down,’ where she's right there with the times,” Keys said. “You'll see the evolution of her vocal sound, her production sounds, and the sophistication and the evolution of metaphor and storytelling.”

Her Songs Are Instantly Relatable 

Keys dives deep into the craft aspect in her songwriting course, where she focuses on the tools and techniques found in Swift’s writing, and gives students the chance to try these elements on their own. “They're going to have probably three songs over the whole semester, full songs where they'll write in the voice of Taylor Swift, just to sort of absorb some of the DNA of her writing,” Keys said.

Watch Berklee artists Tim Reynolds and Nigel Tay cover two Taylor Swift songs—that Swift herself described as "stunning"

From a craft perspective, Keys’s course also tries to explain what is it about those techniques that have resonated with a large audience over such a long period of time. “I think because she writes with more common chords that are diatonic mostly, it allows the listener to focus on her melodies and her storytelling,” she explains, with “diatonic” here referring to the use of chords and harmonies that stay within the key, thus creating musical structures that listeners can latch on to nearly instantly.

That simplicity creates familiarity, according to Keys, and allows her audience to sink into the poetry and storytelling of her lyrics. This is a widely used and respected method, with Keys citing Bob Dylan as another famous—and Nobel Prize-winning—example.

Her Life Becomes Her Art

Marketing, technology, and craft—on their own, these are not new concepts to any artist working in the contemporary music industry. Rather, for Swift, it’s how all three elements overlap and work together. In the case of the Eras Tour, an emphasis on innovative live tech allowed for a superior film product, which was then marketed while demand was still high, which then brought Swift and her songs onto TVs and tablets, making a stratospheric artist feel close to home. And then in the thick of all that, she releases a new album that—surprise!—was actually a double album.

So, what can we learn from her? For Keys, it’s the symbiotic relationship between marketing and personal and artistic reinvention. “When you experience a hard thing, how do you turn that around?” Keys asks, citing Swift’s ability to turn personal struggles into artistic triumphs, which has, as Keys said, “made people love her even more, and now she's bigger than ever.”

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