Pop Music’s Franchise Era

In 2024 a new Bob Dylan biopic was released, and it was announced that each of the four Beatles would be getting an individual biopic from director Sam Mendes. Despite over a decade of renewed attention to underrecognized figures like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Billie Tipton, Sylvester, Poly Styrene, and beyond, the mainstream film industry only seems interested in investing in the biggest and most proven megastars.

Similarly, within a year, Gannett/USA Today hired reporters to cover Taylor Swift and Beyonce exclusively while the most important English-language music publication, Pitchfork, was effectively closed and folded into the men’s magazine GQ and music reporters from major outlets like the L.A. Times and NPR were laid off. While all this is going on, Spotify decides to de-monetize tracks with fewer than a thousand plays per month and redistribute that revenue to higher-performing artists.

While Hollywood has been deep in its franchise era for most of the millennium, it’s now pretty clear that the pop music industry has followed suit. In their edited collection on flim’s franchise era, James Fleury, Brian Hartzheim, and Stephen Mamber argue that franchization led the film industry to “a lack of mid-budget projects in favor of blockbusters, the replacement of stars with characters, [and] experiments with cinematic universes instead of just one-off “tentpoles.” All of these are evident in today’s mainstream music industry. 

Hollywood likes franchises because they are tested and proven IP assets: Star Wars and X-Men have a proven track record and a built-in audience. They appear to be less risky investments than new material. So, just like Spotify stopped paying low- and mid-performing tracks, Hollywood execs put all their resources into branded blockbusters and left nothing for smaller, less expensive but less popular films.

In 2024’s pop music industry, Taylor and Beyonce are franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They are not stars, per se, but tested and proven brand IP that the industry leverages into blockbuster content like the Eras and Renaissance tours and concert films. And they franchise not just in the music industry, but across media – that’s what the Taylor and Beyonce beats at Gannett are, new locations of existing franchises. I will be the last person to be surprised if and when they build a Taylor Swift theme park.

With their “portfolio careers” spanning various industries like apparel, beauty, instruments, and food (read Alyx Vesy’s new book!), pop stars treat their own brands as a franchise. Cue the clip from Spaceballs where Mel Brook’s Yogurt character shrugs and exclaims “MYURCH-endizing!” In this respect, pop artists are less like stars and more like characters whose vibes grace everything from athleisure to sweet potato pies.

We can understand “eras” and “act i/act ii/act iii” as the Swift and Carter universes. Traditionally, an album was a “tent-pole”, a self-contained whole. But when Swift repackaged all her individual albums into a catalog of “eras” for a tour of that same name, she created a universe; each album set the vibe for world-building sets, costumes, and the like. The same is true of Beyonce’s various acts: there’s the house music act, the country act, and purportedly a forthcoming rock act. It’s the music version of Andor, The Mandolorian, Rebels, or The Flash, The Green Lantern, Supergirl…various iterations of IP from the same overarching universe.

The problem, of course, is that this concentrates all the wealth in the hands of the richest artists and corporations and makes it nearly impossible for anyone else to produce and release music. It homogenizes the sonic universes available to listeners and fans, and disenfranchises all but the biggest superstars. The movie press has been speculating about “superhero fatiguefor a little over a year. For Hollywood, the franchise era may have been good for the industry for a while, but it’s limiting for movie audiences and crushing for upcoming talent. In August 2023 Billboard published a piece asking “Why Aren’t More Pop Stars Being Born?” New artists struggle to break through because the industry wants franchises, not ingenues. New talent is riskier than proven brands; for new talent to break through, they have to exhibit the sort of massive virality of a Lil Nas X or Ice Spice. Similarly, with austerity hitting the music press hard in recent years, there’s not the infrastructure to cover any stories except the most clickable and bankable–like stories about Taylor or Beyonce. The franchise era is bad for music, musicians, and music fans.  

It will be interesting to see if superstar fatigue eventually settles into the music industry the way it has in Hollywood. I don’t have any real predictions to make there, so to close I’ll instead give some attention to some smaller, non-franchised indie musicians I like: