I’m calling it: Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour” is the most lucrative cultural product in human history.
This is not based on anything concrete (though I’ll be running through some numbers below) and relies upon a distinction. Star Wars, for example, or Harry Potter, is no more a single cultural artefact than Taylor Swift herself is. But the “Eras Tour” — her long, global stadium tour celebrating her discography — is. And I think it’s going to make her far more money than any film, any book, any album, any video game* in history.
For those living under a rock, Taylor Swift is the biggest popstar in the world right now. Far from the lichen-strewn claustrophobia of Rockbottomsville, Pennsylvania native Swift, 33, has been traversing America’s music venues and sports stadia performing a tour which synthesises her decades long career in the music industry, from her days as a country music starlet to her current position as the envy of her competition. It is the apotheosis of a trend that has dominated the music industry in recent years: the birth of streaming and the commensurate decline in record sales has turned touring into the dominant revenue generator.
The Washington Post reported recently that Swift is due to personally receive $4.1bn from the “Eras Tour”. Let me place that figure in some sort of context. That sum would make her, on those earnings alone, the 47th richest person in the UK (just ahead of the bloke who owns Royal Mail and West Ham United). It is more than the nominal GDP of Sierra Leone, a country with a population of 9,000,000 people. It would buy you three prosciutto sandwiches at Pret (that’s a joke about inflation; it would actually buy you 820,000,000 prosciutto sandwiches at Pret). It’s a lot of money for any person to make. It also compares very favourably with the highest grossing movie of all time (Avatar, $2,923,706,026), highest grossing album (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, with 51.2m copies sold), highest grossing modern novel (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with 120m copies sold) and highest grossing painting (Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, $450m).
The reason why Swift is able to make such a gargantuan amount of money from the tour (and remember: that’s her projected cut; there are other stakeholders) is twofold. Firstly, the tour is mammoth. She will perform 146 dates over the course of the tour, which will shortly be going global following an interminable zigzag across the continental United States. Cramming as many performances in as possible is the key to big grosses from touring. Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour — which ran from 2018 to 2023 — is held up as the highest grossing stadium tour in history, and ran for 330 shows (albeit over the course of a much longer time period). Yet Swift is already nipping at his heels to become the top grossing stadium tour of all time. And that’s for another reason: the average cost of a ticket to the “Eras Tour” is $456.
Yes, you read that right. That’s the average. You could almost buy a sandwich at Pret for that sort of money.
Given I’ve already declared the “Eras Tour” to be the most lucrative cultural product, it might seem strange for me to acknowledge that Elton John’s tour has still out-earned her. But that’s because there is another string to the bow of the “Eras Tour” which is the film version, currently dominating cinemas across America (and releasing worldwide shortly, before the tour itself has even left American shores). The film version has already set a new record opening for a concert movie. Deadline reported that the film had sold over $100m worth of pre-sale tickets — a colossal figure for any movie, especially a concert movie (which generally sell to a far smaller niche than most mainstream releases). The film will undoubtedly spark a bidding war amongst the streaming services (Swift already has commercial relationships with many of them: Miss Americana is on Netflix, Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions is on Disney+, Swift performed the Prime Day concert for Amazon…etc.). It is pop videography with unprecedented saturation.
But Swift is no ordinary popstar. In fact, I think she’s just about the most ludicrously avaricious business person on the planet.
That might seem a harsh claim when she’s compared against Jeff Bezos or Bernard Arnault. And it seems doubly harsh when you remember that the genesis of the “Eras Tour” was in the re-recordings that Swift did of her albums, after the masters were bought up by Scooter Braun, a producer she wanted nothing to do with. And so a project began to redo her oeuvre and reclaim her creative output. A noble sentiment, of course, but also a fundamentally lucrative one. It gave her the chance to sell her records to her fanbase all over again. And these fans, who fully supported Swift in her attempt to free herself from Braun, showed their admiration for the singer with their credit cards.
The records, in turn, sold tour tickets (and vice versa, of course). They also catalysed a vast, new commercial empire. If you want to purchase the recently re-released “1989” on vinyl (which true Swifties do, of course) you’ll need to shell out $31.89 plus shipping. If you want to buy the official “1989 seagull crewneck” sweater, that’ll be $74.89 plus shipping. The tote bag is $39.89. And that’s just “1989”: each “era” comes with its own shop and product range, relying on the completist tendencies of super fans who’d want each album in vinyl, each era’s T-shirt, each special edition set of coasters and sunglass cases and sew-on patches.
Most behemoths of modern finance work under a simple principle: make things cheaper for consumers, and increase your reach. Quantity of customer base over quality of sale price. This is why Amazon is so profitable, and why unicorns like eBay, Uber, Alibaba etc have gained their horns. But then there are the counter-examples, the so-called Veblen goods. Historically, this was a trend relatively isolated to luxury fashion houses like Louis Vuitton — where an expensive price tag, attached to a handbag, would make it more desirable, rather than less — but which has expanded to encompass the most profitable companies of the 21st century, places like Apple and Tesla. Top of the range iPhones now retail for well in excess of $1,000 and top-spec Teslas for over $100,000, yet the market has seemingly grown. The confluence of practical utility, status symbol and aspirational futurism is a lucrative one.
Swift’s products — whether they’re decent seats at the “Eras Tour” or low-quality clothing sold at a huge mark-up — have that Veblen veneer. In the weeks and months after the announcement of the tour, people across Twitter, Instagram and TikTok posted sycophantic and vaguely obsessive posts about their DELIGHT at securing tickets, even if the spend was close to a thousand dollars. It became a status symbol within the Swiftie community: I’m hardcore enough to spend silly money on tickets and merch. But increasingly, it should be said, there has been pushback from fans who feel like their commitment is being exploited, particularly after a well-publicised brouhaha over the Ticketmaster platform failing to handle the launch of the “Eras Tour” (a news story now memorialised in this “2022 Ticketmaster Controversy” Wikipedia page).
The problem is that, historically, Veblen goods have been sold to people who can — generally — afford them. Swiss bankers, say, with bored wives at home who can only be mustered from their Valium haze by a Birkin bag. What’s $200,000 for a handbag to someone like that? But increasingly (and Apple and Tesla are just as culpable of this as Swift) there is a tendency to push these counter-intuitive, price status goods onto people who can’t afford them. The biggest offender, in my opinion, is the car industry, where payment plans have allowed people to run up debts acquiring cars they cannot afford, in order to showcase the pretence of wealth. I used to walk past a block of some of the most deprived housing in south London, marvelling at the insanely expensive cars (including a Rolls Royce) parked outside. Without wanting to patronise the residents, what potential financial security are they wasting on cars that make them look rich?
The reason I find The Swift Machine (I can’t blame Swift alone, as she is now essentially CEO of a major corporation) so distasteful, is that the consumers being exploited for financial gain are i) often children, ii) often involved in a co-dependent, messianic relationship with the singer, iii) often financially insecure, and iv) often doing a huge amount of unpaid promotional work on the side. The fact is, the “Eras Tour” hasn’t needed to spend a penny on advertising (something straight out of the Elon Musk playbook) because thousands, millions maybe, of teenagers have been putting together the most electric advertising campaign — across TikTok, Reels, Snapchat, whatever — for months. Hours upon hours of labour, rewarded by what? Being squeezed for every cent in their bank accounts.
Maybe it is inherent to the way that fandom intersects with capitalism. Maybe I hold Swift to a higher standard because I like her music, I like her liberal politics, and I believe she can do better. Maybe I believe that Boomers going to an Elton John gig are more ripe for the financial plucking than teenagers and young millennials booking out the bleachers at a Swift concert. Maybe I believe that selling the international rights to a concert movie of a tour which is ongoing, and has yet to leave the USA, after you’ve sold the tickets to those international gigs somewhat deprives those fans of the magic of experiencing the performance with fresh eyes (and denies them the option of picking the $15 movie version over the $500 stadium version). Maybe I’m just jaded by a year of war and inflation and energy insecurity, and believe that art should be something that runs counter to the flow (the more my sandwich costs at Pret, the more I need the escape of cheap TV).
So here’s a plea to Swift, if my prediction that the “Eras Tour” is, or will become, the most lucrative cultural product in human history proves true. Stop selling tat from online stores at huge mark ups: this encourages bad labour practices, doesn’t create domestic jobs, and financially penalises fans. Set a maximum price of $150 for your next stadium tour, and a limit of $50 for under-16s. And say a big, grovelling thank you to all the kids on TikTok who have been advertising the tour for you, day and night, all year.
These should be the sort of consumer-focused standards that underpin the industry, but they feel increasingly impossible. For all that American art and culture professes to be a Xanadu of enlightened, liberal thought — for all that actors go on strike and musicians post heartfelt messages of peace and writers talk about the evils of “late capitalism” — in reality is is driven by the same rapacious industrial impulses as Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
*Adrift in a sea of caveats here, because, for example, Fortnite is said to have generated some $26bn in revenue which is obviously more than the “Eras Tour”. But there is a point when a video game — in my opinion — becomes a sport, a continuous revenue generating product. And just as it would be nonsensical to talk about revenue generated by “football”, I also think it is nonsensical to talk about revenue generated by Fortnite or World of Warcraft or Minecraft or Roblox.