Here’s this captivating 17-year-old with a certified gold debut album, who has written 250 songs, kept a 4.0 grade point average up until the day her first single was released, visits a bundle of radio stations every day and is about to jump from a George Strait tour to a Brad Paisley jaunt.
She keeps up on her studies while on the bus, and is set to graduate on time next spring. Meanwhile, she has met a lot of people along the way.
Rick Barker, when he was the West Coast regional rep for Big Machine Records, told her if she wanted to sell 500,000 albums, she’d need to meet 500,000 people.
“He was the first one to ever say that to me and it sunk in,” Swift told Pollstar. She took the philosophy to heart and, since her debut dropped last year, she has invested her life into meet-and-greets, press and touring. She is playing to arena-sized crowds yet recently played an Academy of Country Music board meeting.
“I literally had a Top 10 single and no manager,” Swift said. “We held off for a while because we kept saying, ‘Oh well, we’ll get this song Top 30 and then we’ll be able to get a better manager. Oh, we’ll get this song Top 20 and then we’ll get a really good manager.’ Then we started realizing that we’re doing this whole thing ourselves.”
Because Barker was one of those most responsible, he’s phasing out his position at the label and taking on the role of manager.
“It’s funny because, when I first started at Big Machine Records, we kept Taylor’s management in-house,” Barker said. “We needed to be able to move at the speed of light with a 16-year-old, and trying to convince someone else of the plan would have taken way too much time.”
Barker – a 15-year radio vet – was given the task of introducing Swift to her first radio tour, and they took off on a two-week run.
“One of the things I said to her early on was, ‘Listen, I’ll be honest with you as long as you can show me you can handle it. And then, when you show me you can’t, I’ll just blow smoke up your butt like we do every other artist and tell you how great you are.’ And she looked at me square in the eye and said, ‘I want to learn.’”
But Barker kept hearing from naysayers that this girl would only appeal to teenyboppers. So, on the fifth day of the tour, at the 21-and-over Buffalo Club in Boise, Barker had her play for an hour and do a meet-and-greet that lasted longer than the show. Afterward, she asked him why she had to do it.
“I said, ‘Because now I have a story. Now I can let people know that you’re not going to just be booked for bar mitzvahs, quinceaneras and sweet 16 birthday parties. Your music appeals to an adult audience. I needed that story and you allowed me to have it.’”
Now that the record is gold, and 500,000 people have met Swift and bought her record, television is finally coming on board, with names like Leno and Regis on the calendar. It took Swift six years to get to this point. She had been visiting Nashville offices since she was 12 and got a publishing contract at 14.
“People say, ‘Oh, she hasn’t paid her dues,’” Barker said. “Trust me: not the right thing to say.”
Swift’s first single is called “Tim McGraw,” although the song is about associating music with a memory, not about the country singer. Still, it turns out she’s got a lot in common with McGraw – namely, her booking agent. CAA’s Rod Essig, who has booked McGraw since the early years, is also booking the start of Swift’s career.
“You can get a booking agency when you don’t have a record deal,” Swift said, “so we wanted to hold off to see who was really passionate about it. It seemed that CAA was really ready to step to the plate, and Rod has always been a dear friend of mine. He’s such a cool person and so positive. CAA has been pretty good for us so far.”
Barker said he and Swift joke around every week that she’s going to let him go but, in all honesty, they’re both out to prove that an early manager can stay with an artist throughout the career.
“She could have picked anyone in Nashville, and she picked me,” he said. “That will change my life. Let’s be honest.”