Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour is breaking records. Opening night in Glendale, Arizona on March 17, 2023 played to an audience of 69,000—the largest concert draw by a female artist in US history. It will end 146 shows later on November 23, 2024 in Toronto. Two million tickets were sold on the first day, the most for any artist in history. The tour is expected to pull in $1 billion.
But none of that will leave a lasting mark. This tour will be remembered for one thing: Swift’s decision to pay everyone associated with the tour—dancers, singers, caterers, sound techs, truck drivers, riggers, electricians, roadies, security—life-changingly large bonuses.
Each of the 50 truckers working the show will receive a $100,000 bonus beyond their compensation. Total bonuses for the combined crew are reported to be $55 million. Even a crew of 500, much more than usual for a tour, would put the average per person close to that hundred grand.
It’s hard to imagine that a single recipient will not have their life changed by this. Crushing debts will be retired, health care needs met, educations and child care paid for, life-draining second jobs quit. For these people, a lot of the soul-crushing bullshit of late-stage capitalism will be eased off their shoulders.
The average bonus on similar tours reportedly runs $5,000-10,000—lovely, but much less life-altering.
No matter what you think of Taylor Swift or her music, or ulterior motives for the largess, or whether it’s enough, this fact stands: A decision was made, whether by Swift alone or by her team, to use a substantial whack of the profits generated by this tour to change the lives of the people who made the tour possible.
Stick a pin in that.
The contagion of public virtue
When I read about the Swift bonuses, my mind went straight to Warren Buffett, who along with Bill Gates established The Giving Pledge in 2010. The idea was to “encourage” their fellow xillionaires to join them in a commitment to give the great majority of their personal wealth to charitable causes. Buffett got more specific, pledging to give away 99% of his then 62 billion dollar fortune “during my lifetime or at death,” now known as the Buffett Giving Pledge. He has so far managed to shed $50 billion.
Bill Gates is rightly seen as one of the great philanthropists of the 21st century for the work and impact of that foundation. But most people have forgotten that Gates was roundly and rightly excoriated throughout the late 1990s for his measly levels of philanthropic giving. Long after becoming a billionaire in 1987, he was still giving away tiny fractions of his wealth. After he became the richest person on Earth in 1995, the public shaming grew louder. And still, he held tight to his wads.
Likewise forgotten in the glow of his recent philanthropy was the earlier harsh criticism leveled at the second richest person of the 90s, Warren Buffett. That’s right—Warren Buffett, of the famous Buffett Giving Pledge, was roundly shamed as a “skinflint.”
And no one leveled the charge at Gates and Buffett more fiercely or shamingly than Ted Turner.
An August 1996 New York Times column by Maureen Dowd highlighted Turner’s rising philanthropy, and the appalling thing that had delayed it:
When Ted Turner forked over $200 million to charity two years ago, he felt a tremor.
”My hand shook when I signed the papers,” he recalls, about his first big gifts to universities and the environment, ”because I knew I was taking myself out of the running for the richest man in America.”
Instead of the joy of giving, he was consumed by the fear of falling — off The Forbes Four Hundred list of wealthiest Americans.
But he learned that giving can be as much fun as making, and now he wants his fellow billionaires — or ”ol’ skinflints,” as he calls them — to ”open their pursestrings” wider.
”That list is destroying our country!” he bellows cheerfully over the phone. ”These new super-rich won’t loosen up their wads because they’re afraid they’ll reduce their net worth and go down on the list. That’s their Super Bowl.”
Why not start an annual list of the most generous, offering an ”Ebenezer Scrooge Prize” that embarrasses stingy billionaires and ”Heart of Gold Award” to honor philanthropists?
Mr. Turner, a.k.a. Captain Outrageous and the Mouth of the South, is getting warmed up now. ”I talked to both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the two richest men in the country, and they would be inclined to give more if there was a list of who did the giving rather than the having. What difference does it make if you’re worth $12 billion or $11 billion? With a billion dollars you can build a whole university.
”They are fighting every year to be the richest man in the world. Why don’t they sign a joint pact to each give away a billion and then move down the Forbes list equally?”
Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett have given away some money, but not the really big bucks. The Microsoft founder promises to give away most of his $16 billion, but wants to wait until he is 50 or 60 to plan it. Mr. Buffett has said he will give the bulk of his $15 billion to population control, but not until after he and his wife are gone.
Mr. Turner impatiently drawls that tomorrow is not another day, when it comes to population and the environment. ”THEY SHOULD DO IT NO-O-OW!”
He shamed them.
Two years later, Turner gave his famous $1 billion donation to establish the United Nations Foundation.
Two years after that, Gates and his wife established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Ten years later, Buffett and Gates created The Giving Pledge, which has 236 signatories to date and pledge totals approaching $1 trillion.
Whether it’s the contagion of public virtue or the wave of public shame, I have to think Ted Turner is the headstream of this river of generosity. And the shaming continues, with recent articles calling out the many billionaires who have yet to sign up. Jeffrey Bezos hasn’t signed up, though his ex-wife MacKenzie Scott, a full-time philanthropy machine, has both signed up and created an unprecedented giving machine to make it happen as quickly as possible.
Swifting the gap
After the concert at which Taylor Swift’s truckers received a handwritten note from Taylor telling them about $100,000 coming their way, the entire truck team is said to have formed a long line alongside the stadium exit route. When her car passed by on the way to her hotel, every trucker blew their horns continuously—an outpouring that was quickly taken up in the media.
And close behind it will be a shame wave.
There is no human possibility that this will be a one-off. Not only is Swift likely to repeat some form of the gesture in her next tour, but you can bet that the proletarians on every other rock and country music tour will be looking hard at their own Romanovs.
And why not? You can see the Swift bonus as an act of generosity—but you can also see it as a fig leaf yanked away from the insane and unsustainable inequity of our whole system. You make my tour possible! you can imagine her shouting to the cacophony of truck horns. All the rest of the summer tours must be staring daggers at their own mega-rich stars.
A little more context for Swift’s bonuses: She is making an estimated $520 million for this tour.
Now we rightly criticize CEOs for making 400 times more than the average worker in their companies. But even if a Swift trucker’s base pay was $100,000 for the tour, Swift was making 5,200 times as much before the bonuses.
I’ll call that a fig leaf situation. And once you yank it, all eyes go to what’s underneath.
Yes, she wrote the songs. Yes, she is the brand. In that respect, she is more entitled to a ridiculous percentage of the take than most CEOs. But she’s right when she says she couldn’t do it without them.
So how ridiculous should it be?
These bonuses have a lot of people doing this math for the first time ever, seeing the ludicrous gap between those on top and the rest of us. It’s not unreasonable to see this act of generosity leading to an awakening, and some sweating from high places, maybe even some long-overdue pitchforks—especially given the very high concern of Millennials and Gen Z about wealth and income gaps. This is a major conversation starter, and like Turner and Buffett and Gates, a peer-shamer that should extend well beyond the music world.
And why not? Taylor Swift’s wallet will not notice the absence of $55 million, but her reputation will. The reviled Jeff Bezos should take note. With a veritable penstroke, he could massively raise every non-executive salary, transforming Amazon into the most sought-after employer on Earth and himself into a saint.
Given our short memories for Buffett and Gates, we’d all quickly forget the pissing in bottles.