Wal-Mart’s annual meeting and the case of the missing Taylor Swift livestream

June 1, 2012

Taylor Swift, country music’s current sweetheart, performed at the Wal-Mart annual meeting Friday. But her record label doesn’t really want you to know that. Or at the very least, they didn’t want you to see or hear her.

Neither side is saying why, but is this a good time to mention the Mexican bribery allegations swirling around Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart typically brings in top acts for its annual meeting, which is as much a pep rally for its employees as an exercise in corporate governance. Ben Stiller and Will Smith have served as hosts in the past, and this year’s MC duties went to none other than Justin Timberlake. In addition to JT and Swift,  other musical acts who showed up to serenade Wal-Mart workers Friday included Celine Dion, Lionel Richie, Juanes and the Zac Brown Band.

But while the performances of all those other acts were streamed on the webcast of the meeting, Swift’s mysteriously wasn’t.  When it was time for her to stop bantering with Timberlake and start singing “Love Story” and “Mean,” the webcast was interrupted with a notice that said the performance would not be shown at the request of her label, Big Machine Music. That is somewhat ironic, as Swift’s core audience consists of young digital natives while Dion and Richie fans may need Swift’s fans to  explain what a webcast is to them.

Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar gave no other details about the Swift blackout, but noted that a few acts have requested the same in the past, Jennifer Lopez among them. A spokeswoman for Swift’s label, Big Machine Music, could not immediately say why the performance was blacked out.

Perhaps Wal-Mart and Swift’s handlers couldn’t come to terms on a licensing fee, though that seems a stretch given Wal-Mart’s deep coffers. Perhaps Swift’s team felt streaming her performance might eat into her single and album sales. But that too seems highly unlikely since Swift has blossomed over her short career into one of the music industry’s most reliable sales performers, moving more than 22 million albums and 50 million song downloads from her catalog.

But maybe, just maybe—and again, we’re just spit-balling here—Swift’s team didn’t want her squeaky clean image forever digitally linked to a company the New York Times says bribed its way into rapid expansion in Mexico, only to see top management squelch an internal investigation. Now the Feds are investigating in the U.S. and various officials in Mexico are probing, too.

Playing at the gig itself is one thing, as her performance is not archived for the masses. It’s ephemeral, fleeting, lasting as long as her songs do; and Wal-Mart employees make up a big chunk of the audience. But a live stream is something else entirely. It can be captured and preserved, and thus shown on newsmagazines and the “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” and in any other venue that happens to be doing a story on Wal-Mart in the future. And for Swift, an artist whose image is built around purity and honesty and being true to oneself — or basically the opposite of what recent allegations at Wal-Mart suggest — that may have been a risk not worth taking.

(Updates post to show what is recent is the allegations.)

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