Taylor Swift Broke This Music-Streaming Record, But The Reasons Why Speak To Sexism Beyond The Music Industry

It's a pervasive problem — with a simple solution.

As of September 5, Taylor Swift's lead single, "Look What You Made Me Do" took over the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 list from "Despacito." The Luis Fonsi summer bop featuring Daddy Yankee (as well as its Justin Bieber-infused remix) had just tied with Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day" for the longest-running No. 1 song, with 16 weeks spent in the top spot of Billboard's Hot 100.


In doing so, Taylor Swift broke another record — that of most weekly streams for a single in the United States, with 84.4 million. Not only is this the highest number of streams any song has garnered this year (again surpassing "Despacito," which had 69.6 million in June), but Taylor Swift is the only woman to ever accomplish such a feat. 

And that's more important because, well, that's a problem.

And that problem has nothing to do with Taylor Swift. This is not a defense of her artistry or her public persona, but something that should be considered a fact. She did not contribute to that problem, but rather is the merely inevitable outcome. One woman had to be the first, and — love or hate TS — it just so happened to be her. 

So the problem isn't Taylor Swift. It's us. 

Despite how many haters hate hate hate hate hate, she isn't forcing us to listen to her music. And as much as we may want to joke about it, neither the new Taylor nor the old one is some all-powerful being with the ability to take over our bodies and possess our pointer fingers to press the play button on Spotify, Apple Music, and any other streaming services. 

Nor are we at the mercy of some radio host a record label paid to play a certain song over and over, anonymous phone call requests, or any other booby traps laid in traditional radio. Streaming services provide the ultimate "Choose Your Own Adventure" option, and this is the adventure we've chosen. 

For better or worse, why? Why Taylor Swift? And more importantly, why did it take us so long?

When you think of the most-loved, and therefore, most-listenable modern female artist, one name comes to mind: Beyoncé. But despite Beyoncé may or maybe not having "the best music video of all time," that goddess-level of slayage hasn't translated into record-breaking music streams. Why? Perhaps the reason is so simple, it's almost stupid: Lemonade isn't on Spotify. 

Instead, the 2016 blockbuster album was released for purchase on Apple and Amazon, but could only be streamed on Tidal. When you shun an industry leader, no matter how noble your reason, this is to be expected. According to data from public company statements, Tidal had 3 million subscribers to Spotify's 30 million in 2016. When you eliminate one music-streaming platform, regardless the size and ferocity of your Beyhive, you will garner fewer streams. 

Then again, the number of listens may be just as many as or more than Taylor Swift, but they may come from pirated digital versions that are easily and instantly disseminated to anyone with a working internet connection. Those listens will never be counted because, officially, they don't exist. Since the days of Napster, piracy has massacred the music industry, and even Beyoncé isn't immune.  

But let's not blame one woman's success on another's misstep. Beyoncé is also not the problem. Nor is Adele or Ariana or any of the other female-identifying artists you may think are more worthy of this — can we even call it an "honor" when it's so long overdue? 

Of the top 5 artists most-streamed on Spotify in 2016, 4 out of 5 were men (though to clarify, Twenty One Pilots is an artist duo made up of two men). The sole exception was Rihanna. When Spotify divided their top 5 most-streamed artist lists among gender lines, the majority of "Most Streamed Male Artists" still made the overall top 5 list, while the exact opposite could be said of the "Most Streamed Female Artists." The top 5 lists for most-stream tracks and most-streamed albums tell a similar, male-dominated story. 

Perhaps we can trace this to Taylor Swift's stance against the streaming service and others until June 8, 2017, when she dropped her entire discography, but what good would it do us? Adele was there; Ariana was there; Sia was there. Spotify built it, and they came. 

Where was their audience?

But the problem goes far beyond streaming services, it's an ailment inherent to an industry where only 5 percent of producers and engineers working in the industry today are female. In the 52 years of the Grammy awards' existence, none have ever won Producer of the Year (non-classical), and only six have ever been nominated. When fewer women have creative control behind the scenes, it should come as no surprise they have less visibility in the studio, on stage, and yes, on streaming services, too. 

Even when women make themselves as visible as possible by, say, becoming the female artist with the most entries on the Billboard Hot 100, they're still the exception, not the rule. This past march, Nicki Minaj did just that with a total of 76 songs. You know who she had to bump out of what must surely have been a coveted spot? Aretha Franklin. Her last Billboard-charting song came out in August 1998 ("Here We Go Again"), meaning it's taken nearly 20 years for another woman to attain that level of prolific artistry. 

Perhaps this is nothing more than a kudos to Aretha's singular star power, but consider this: Drake only had to pass his contemporary Lil Wayne for the dual honor of male artist with most charted titles and most charted titles among soloists (154 to 135, both twice that of Nicki and Aretha). 

The math doesn't lie. There's an obvious —  and embarrassing — disparity.

A week after Minaj's record-breaking feat, Billboard released its "updated count of the acts with the most Hot 100 entries all-time." Disregarding the cast of Glee securing the No. 1 spot with 207 entries, eight of the nine were men. Maybe men are just more prolific artists, but maybe it's easier for a man to be more prolific when more opportunities are created for him in an industry, and especially within certain genres in said industry, where the top decisions are almost always made by other men. When the music industry becomes a numbers game, as it so often does — numbers of albums, sold-out shows, awards, streams — women are forced to claw their way to the top to be heard. 

But it's too easy to blame it on the industry. The internet has upended the industry and its offerings. If you don't want to listen to mainstream, bubble gum pop music, you never have to. That, in itself, is the appeal of online music platforms like Spotify, but more notably SoundCloud and YouTube: total self-determination. Still, with so many artists, genres, mediums, the numbers never add up to equality. 

We keep coming back to the same troubling conclusion: Why don't we listen to women?

Does this mirror the way we don't listen to women when they talk about their health problems or when they admit to being raped? Those are big questions, but if we can't listen to arguably the most powerful and influential among us on par with their male counterparts, what hope do the rest of us have? 

The problem isn't Taylor Swift or another female artist. The problem isn't Spotify. The problem isn't even the overwhelming tendency of the mainstream music industry to be just another male-dominated sphere. The problem is, at its core, us. We chose this adventure; we shouldn't be surprised when it leads us on a long road to nowhere. 

But just as the problem is simple, so is the solution. Listen to women — and not because they're women.

Listen to them because they have something to say, sing, rap that you haven't heard before. 

Yes, male artists contribute to the music industry, but that goes without saying. It should also go without saying that to listen to women, we don't suddenly need to shun men from our playlists. That would be ridiculous, and just as unfair. 

But we should ask ourselves what opinions, perspectives, truths we're missing out on by consistently putting female artists on the back burner. What lesson aren't we learning because we aren't listening? More importantly, what will we discover when we do? 

I don't know. I imagine the answer will be different for everyone. With so many talented female artists to stream, it must be. 


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