From Beatlemania to Taylor-Mania
Taylor Swift’s “Eras” tour is doing ludicrous numbers.
What began in March 2023 as a 52-show US tour has expanded into a 131-show international juggernaut which is scheduled to end in August 2024. Each performance lasts 3.5 hours with Swift playing 44 songs from her catalogye (FYI: my fave Swift tracks are “You Belong With Me” and “Wildest Dreams”).
Quick napkin math shows that “Eras” will likely be the first tour ever to gross over US$1 billion. Swift is selling out stadiums that seat over 50,000 people at an average retail price of $200+ per seat. That is a gross of $10 million-plus per show. Multiply that by 131 shows and the total haul is $1,310,000,000.
Even if these per show estimates are high — especially for the international venues — there is still quite a bit of buffer ($310m) to clear the billy mark. Take that Bono!
The hype and excitement surrounding Taylor Swift’s “Eras” tour is drawing comparisons to the rise of Beatlemania in 1963.
To be sure, there are differences. The “Eras” tour is 20 years and 10 studio albums into Taylor Swift’s career while The Beatles were just beginning to gain mainstream attention. However, the sequence of events, social context and audience psychology between Beatlemania and the current Taylor-mania show clear parallels.
Let me explain.
The Rise of Beatlemania
One of the most iconic pop culture moments of the 20th century took place on February 9th, 1964: The Beatles performed live on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in New York to a TV audience of 73 million people, which was 40% of the US population at the time.
This performance catapulted the foursome of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison to global superstardom and the top of the entertainment world, where they would remain for the rest of the decade.
The iconic moment was 50 years ago and The Beatles have become so influential that many people forget that the band was largely unknown to the US public just months before their “Ed Sullivan” breakthrough.
Of course the foursome was very talented and hardworking. Of course they crafted the catchiest singles (starting with “Please Please Me” and “Love Me Do” in 1962). But the group’s parabolic trajectory was boosted by a fortunate sequence of events.
The best article I have read on the topic is a 2014 Billboard piece by Steve Greenberg titled “How the Beatles Went Viral”, which outlines how luck and timing played a huge role in the rise of Beatlemania.
Here are three ways:
1. Concentrating demand: British fans began to embrace The Beatles — who came from the working class town of Liverpool — in early 1963, about a year before their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The band scored a top album (their studio debut “Please Please Me”) in the spring and the highest-selling UK single ever (“She Loves You”) in the summer. By November, The Beatles had become the the biggest act in the country and they cemented their status by performing in front of the Royal Family at the London Palladium.
The story was much different across the Atlantic. During the first nine months of 1963, The Beatles had almost no mind share in the United States (George Harrison visited his sister in Illinois in September and not a single soul recognized him).
A major reason: the band was signed to British label EMI and its US entity (Capitol Records) was hesitant to market the foursome in large part because the head talent guy was not good at his job. Many viewed The Beatles as mop-headed sideshows (they did have some savage mop cuts) and a corny version of America’s own The Beach Boys. Rock-n-roll was also dealing with various blows it suffered through the end of the 1950s and early 1960s such as the radio payola scandal and the loss of major acts (e.g. Elvis going to the military, Buddy Holly dying in plane crash and Chuck Berry going to prison). All of this meant that the The Beatles got very little radio play and Capitol Records barely pressed any records to sell.
In November, things began to change. America’s major TV networks and magazines became aware of “Beatlemania” in the UK and published stories about the band, mostly as a curiosity. Then, in December, fans began to demand to hear The Beatles on the radio, and Capitol Records finally relented.
The standard approach to song marketing involved dripping singles throughout the year of an album’s release. However, due to Capitol Records’ slow response to The Beatles’ growing popularity, the band ended up releasing four singles in America between Christmas 1963 and the end of January 1964 (“From Me to You”, “Please Please Me”, “She Loves You”, and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”). The succession of hits in such a short period made The Beatles ubiquitous and created massive appetite for their “Ed Sullivan Show” performance, which was booked months before when the act was much smaller. Capitol Records ultimately sold 2.5m records and couldn’t even press them in time.
The concentration of demand basically peaked at the exact moment that The Beatles touched down in America.
2. National mood: Another key part of The Beatles timing was that US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963. The entire country was thrown into a very somber mood.
A few weeks after JFK’s killing, legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was preparing for his widely-watched evening news show. Cronkite had originally planned to cover The Beatles on the night JFK was killed, but that was delayed for obvious reasons.
Greenberg says that Cronkite felt “the weight of the nation’s collective lack of joy” and “decided it was time to air something fun to break things up”. That “something fun” was a profile of The Beatles. Cronkite was the country’s most-respected news voice and his show led to fans requesting their local radio stations to play The Beatles.
Also, Ed Sullivan was Cronkite’s CBS colleague and — even though he had already booked The Beatles for February 1964 — Sullivan considered them a joke until he spoke with Cronkite. Sullivan now believed that The Beatles had the same potential as Elvis (who Sullivan had helped to propel to stardom in the mid-1950s).
If The Beatles album and singles had dropped earlier in the year — as would have been the case if Capitol Records followed EMI’s traditional marketing plan — America’s collective attention on The Beatles would not have come at a time when the country needed a distraction from a national tragedy.
3. A boost from new technology: The Beatles arrival in America around Christmas 1963 coincided with a huge tech boom: transistor radios. As Greenberg explains:
Although popular since the mid-’50s, the Japanese-made transistor radio experienced exponential sales growth in the mid-’60s, as inexpensive off-brands proliferated. While 5.5 million radios had been sold in the United States in 1962, by 1963 that number nearly doubled to 10 million.
Millions of teens — home for the Christmas holidays — spent 3+ hours a day listening to their new radios, with The Beatles on repeat (like me with “Wildest Dreams” right now).
The Beatles’ combined talent was always destined for the highest heights and there are only a handful of creative talents in history that have had comparable influence.
Consider the media environment of the 1960s. All entertainment was mediated through gatekeepers like radio stations, magazines and variety TV shows. To go viral at the time — from unknown to the top of the mountain — in a matter of weeks is remarkable.
“The Ed Sullivan Show” was the artistic kingmaker of the period. It aired The Beatles in three consecutive weeks, concentrating the nation’s attention on one act. Even this sequence of events was partly due to luck. Sullivan usually booked one act for multiple performances over several months (Elvis did 3 shows over 4 months). But since The Beatles were coming from London, Sullivan booked the band for the whole of February 1963, just as curiosity of Beatlemania was reaching its peak.
Within 18 months of “The Ed Sullivan Show”, The Beatles notched a milestone that paved the way for U2, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift: they performed the first major stadium concert ever at Shea Stadium in New York on August 15, 1965 (crowds at The Beatles live performances got so loud that the band couldn’t hear anything and from 1966, they stopped doing live shows).
The Rise of Taylor-Mania
As noted, a major difference between the start of Beatlemania in 1963 and the current Taylor-mania is that Swift in 2023 is already one of the world’s biggest stars.
Imagine, if you were to compile a list at the beginning of the year for “musical acts that could make $1B in a single tour”, there would not be many options. You would be looking at established stars with deep catalogs and a diverse fan base.
So, basically anyone who is already on the “highest grossing tours ever” list such as U2, Ed Sheeran, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Beyonce, Elton John, Harry Styles, and Coldplay (which has a decent chance of breaking $1B on its current “Music of the Spheres” tour).
I don’t think streaming giants like Drake and Bad Bunny could do it as they have more narrow audience demographics (not really family friendly).
What about Swift? She was in definitely in the running but — just like The Beatles in 1963 — the timing of events has propelled the “Eras” tour into another stratosphere.
Here are the parallels:
1. Concentration of demand: Swift’s last tour (“Reputation”) was in 2018 and brought in an inflation-adjusted haul of $403m across 53 shows, making it the 22nd highest-grossing tour ever. Her “Lover” tour planned for 2020 would likely have been bigger but was sidelined by the pandemic.
Fans had to wait five years between tours. During this period, Swift released 4 studio albums (“Lover”, “Folklore”, “Evermore”, “Midnights”) and two re-recorded albums (“Fearless”, “Red”). For good measure, she dropped the re-recording of one more album (“Speak Now”) this weekend.
More than half of Swift’s 250+ studio album songs (including bonus and vault tracks) have been released since the 2018 “Reputation” tour.
Also, Swift — who has broadened her audience from country to teen sensation to pop and beyond over the past decade — was the subject of two major documentaries in 2020: Netflix’s Americana and Disney+’s Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions.
When her latest release (“Midnights”) came out at the end of October 2022, songs from the album claimed all 10 of the top slots on the Billboard’s Top 100. A few weeks after the record’s debut, the first day of ticket sales for the “Eras” tour sold over 2 million tickets and crashed the Ticketmaster website (this incident left so many fans upset that complaints of scalpers front-running ticket sales led to an FTC antitrust investigation).
The Swift team initially planned for only 52 shows but the overwhelming feedback from the first few performances made it clear that there was a demand for many more, leading to the addition of ~80 new tour dates.
Although the pandemic cancelled Swift’s “Lover” tour, she kept her fans engaged with multiple album releases. When it was time for the big purchase — an “Eras” ticket — everyone wanted in.
2. National mood: It is estimated that the “Eras” tour could generate $4bn for local economies in terms of food, housing, transportation and discretionary spending related to the concert.
After years of “stay-at-home” due to COVID, people were ready to splurge on major in-person events. Furthermore, the wealth destruction that occurred during the rate-hike happy year of 2022 has given way to an upswing in consumer sentiment in 2023.
Translation: people are looking for ways to have fun and the “Eras” tour has become the “it” event for 2023 and 2024.
3. A boost from new technology: Between 2018’s “Reputation” tour and 2023’s “Eras” tour, Swift’s social audience grew massively.
While Instagram isn’t a “new” technology, her follower count on that platform has grown from 115m to 265m. Meanwhile, TikTok has grown from a new app to a 1 billion-plus user platform that is now the most important top-of-funnel marketing tool for the music industry.
Swift has always been social savvy. Famously, she has replied to ~30k fan posts on Tumblr and has invited superfans to private listening sessions (with footage from these private events going viral). Her reputation as the voice for the rights of musicians has been bolstered by very public social media disputes with Apple Music and Spotify.
With the “Eras” tour, Swift keeps the social media cycle on high alert by changing out a few songs for each show. Fans track these small surprises on social media like a must-watch TV show (the #TaylorSwift hashtag has ~100 billion views on TikTok and a ton of the content is concert-related).
The “Eras” tour was clearly destined for big things as signified by its first-day Ticketmaster blowout. However, the timetable changes due to the pandemic have led to a huge concentration of demand and “Eras’ dropped at the perfect moment to create a Beatlemania-type situation.
Taylor’s $500m+ Haul
I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, Trung discovered lucky timing and serendipity.”
Listen, I am an East Asian History major with a subpar GPA. I love untangling historical events and it is always interesting to understand the details and timing that go into creating an outlier outcome.
The Beatles were on the path to become big, but the timing of their performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” made them the biggest thing ever.
Taylor Swift’s “Eras” tour was always going to sell-out, but the timing of the show will make it the first tour to break $1B (and beyond).
Are there any lessons to be learned?
The cliché “don’t stress about things you can’t control” comes to mind. If you do creative work, put in the effort and be strategic; just don’t over-attach the value of your work to the outcome. If you look at the biggest successes in writing, music, film, and other creative endeavors, luck and timing play a huge role.
On a more academic note, economist Cass Sunstein studied Beatlemania and cited four social phenomena that led to The Beatles ridiculous rise:
That process [that started Beatlemania]…includes “informational cascades” (the statements and actions of some affect the statements and actions of others), “reputational cascades” (going along with the crowd to be liked), “network effects” (the value of a good increases as more people use it) and “group polarization” (groups make more extreme decisions than individuals do).
I think that aspects of these four phenomena can be seen in the rise of Taylor-mania. However, compared to The Beatles in 1963, Swift has much more control over the information and network effects due to her massive online following.
The element of luck cannot be disregarded, though. The timing and sequence of events leading up to the “Eras” tour set the stage for it to become the biggest tour ever. The fact that Swift’s team has more than doubled the tour dates from 52 to 131 shows suggests that even they underestimated the demand.
One thing is for sure: Swift will reap a massive windfall for her hard work. I adapted some numbers from the Wall Street Journal’s Neil Shah, and estimate that Swift is set to gross between $550m to 750m on the tour:
- High-end: If Taylor’s take is 40% of each show’s gross and 70% of merch sales, the tour will net her $753m (Yo!!!!!!)
- Low-end: If Taylor’s take is 30% of each show’s gross and 50% of merch sales, the tour will net her $556m (Still “Yo!!!” but with fewer exclamation marks)
In sum: them some ludicrous numbers.