Why Taylor Swift's Album Is Secretly A Baseball Card
"Fearless (Taylor's Version)" returned to No. 1 on the charts thanks to an autographed physical edition—and a page borrowed from the sports memorabilia playbook.
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Rummaging through my childhood bedroom the other day, I came upon something that’s either trash or treasure: an autographed Ted Williams baseball card. You can buy the 1992 Upper Deck All-Star Heroes collectible on eBay with no signature for $0.99; mine is probably worth even less since I can’t prove it’s real.
Except it is real: I had the chance to meet the late slugger at a Hall of Fame dinner in 1993 at the Waldorf-Astoria (the New York Times and my mother can corroborate my story, sort of). But without professional authentication, my card has no value beyond sentimentality, even as sports memorabilia continues its epic bull run.
That’s where Taylor Swift comes in—bear with me.
Swift’s Fearless (Taylor’s Version) rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts this week, in large part due to a limited-edition release of autographed CDs through her web store. The update of her 2008 classic—re-recorded after megamanager Scooter Braun snatched up her catalog—topped the charts during its initial launch back in April but languished at No. 157 last week before the big move.
Nobody can seem to say exactly how many CDs Swift signed, with most outlets describing it ambiguously as “a limited number.” A representative for Swift did not reply to my request for comment yesterday, and I couldn’t get anything out of her record company, either.
At any rate, the quantity—or at least the public perception of the quantity—seems both small enough to create scarcity and large enough to serve as further proof of how much Swift loves her fans.
“It’s true, I signed them all and it’s also true that I may never write the same again, as my hand is now frozen in the permanent shape of a claw,” she tweeted. “All for you.”
In other words, Swift’s album is an autographed baseball card.
Think about it: both are keepsakes that offer a whiff of the ineffable, binding fans closer to their favorite superstars. Both are printed on dead trees, purchased with great anticipation and ripped from crinkly packaging amid great delight. And, unlike my signed Ted Williams, Swift’s album comes pre-authenticated.
Swift’s savvy strategy is a way to tap into increasingly insatiable consumer demand for signed memorabilia. And that makes a ton of sense after years of surging thirst for anything unique and collectible, a trend spurred by factors ranging from rising inflation to shifting spending habits during the pandemic. In an era where so much has shifted to virtual mode, there’s now a premium on verifiable authenticity.
These same forces had a hand in driving the bull market in NFTs, another area where musicians have been quite active. As noted in an earlier installment of this newsletter, the Wu-Tang Clan’s one-of-one “secret album”—I broke the news of its existence for Forbes back in 2014—was actually the first NFT. Subsequent efforts by acts from 3LAU to Kings of Leon have minted millions.
Lately, artists—including Swift—have even been putting out “signed” digital album downloads, with mixed results. With the limited-edition release of signed physical copies of Fearless (Taylor’s Version), though, Swift has done something ingenious: produce authentic memorabilia at scale in an economically efficient manner.
Sure, the amount of time she spends putting ink to booklet can’t possibly be worth it on a pure hourly basis, not for someone who can gross millions for an evening onstage. But these efforts serve as a loss leader to drive up sales of her album, an album whose masters she controls. This should snowball into more spins—not to mention more licensing opportunities, ones that she can control—as the buzz around her return to the number one spot grows.
Swift has managed to marshal the power of intellectual property ownership and an ardent fanbase to create a sort of personal flywheel for the consumption of her work. That’s something most icons could only dream of, including Ted Williams.
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