There Are Plenty of Power Publicists. But Only One Works for Taylor Swift. - Kanebridge News
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There Are Plenty of Power Publicists. But Only One Works for Taylor Swift.

From ‘1989’ through ‘The Tortured Poets Department,’ she has fiercely guarded Swift’s reputation: ‘The devil works hard, but Tree Paine works harder’

Fri, Apr 19, 2024 12:17pmGrey Clock 8 min

Taylor Swift was celebrating the end of the Australian leg of her Eras Tour in late February when a bit of unpleasantness sailed out from Down Under and landed on the home page of TMZ. The New South Wales Police Force was investigating a 71-year-old man for allegedly assaulting a 51-year-old man at a wharf north of the city, according to their media unit. Per TMZ, the septuagenarian was Scott Swift, Taylor’s father and a key member of her management team, and the younger man was a photographer.

The story had all the makings of a public relations nightmare: (1) Celebrity family member allegedly behaves badly while (2) disembarking from a luxury yacht, resulting in (3) a police investigation. To make matters more complicated, Taylor was reportedly present for the alleged altercation—hiding under an umbrella, TMZ said. Though the man didn’t require medical treatment, the police said, there was video footage. Would this be the end of the pop star’s marathon run of fawning press?

Not if Tree Paine could help it.

Swift’s longtime publicist first released a statement that did not refute TMZ’s story, exactly, but offered some exculpatory evidence: “Two individuals were aggressively pushing their way towards Taylor, grabbing at her security personnel, and threatening to throw a female staff member into the water.” Subtext: Scott Swift was simply protecting his daughter and another defenceless woman from a couple of rogue aggressors. He was not charged.

Around the same time, as if by magic, People found a video of Scott passing out sandwiches to young female fans at one of the Sydney shows and published it along with fan commentary. “Isn’t he the sweetest and cutest,” one cooed.

Online, Swifties clocked the People story as good old-fashioned damage control. As a chorus of fan posts put it: “The devil works hard, but Tree Paine works harder.” (In late March, the New South Wales Police Force media unit said that the North Shore Police Area Command finished its investigation and that it is taking no further action.)

The average celebrity publicist does not have fans. But Paine, the 52-year-old redhead seen trailing Swift at awards shows and rubbing shoulders with Gayle King in the Eras Tour VIP area, has become a Swiftverse cult figure in her own right. Fans post reverently about her PR machinations and share videos of her expertly attending to Swift’s needs: smoothing out Swift’s dress on the red carpet, leading Swift right past a scrum of reporters whose questions have not been approved, subtly offering Swift what appeared to be water at the Video Music Awards—a night when the star was filmed dancing in a manner that suggested inebriation.

Swift has trained her followers to look for meaning in her every gesture, outfit and Instagram caption. Paine’s own work—the stories she chooses to respond to, the narrative she puts forward in the media—has become part of that lore.

And Swift and Paine are creating a lot of lore lately. Swift spent the fall cheering on her new boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce , as he sailed to Super Bowl victory , and dropped by the Grammys to pick up album of the year for Midnights and announce her new album in an acceptance speech for yet another award . The Tortured Poets Department , which fans speculate is at least partly inspired by her breakup with the British actor Joe Alwyn , drops this month, and Swift will promote it while balancing her public relationship, continuing her sold-out international Eras Tour amid growing criticism of her private jet usage and brushing off baseless conspiracy theories that she is secretly working as a Democratic operative to swing the 2024 election for President Joe Biden.

In a long career of riding high, Swift has hit the stratosphere. It’s Paine’s job to keep her there.

Back in 2014, Swift’s world domination was not yet assured. That March, trade publications reported that the pop star’s publicist of seven years, Paula Erickson, had submitted her resignation. Fairly or not, during Erickson’s tenure, Swift developed a reputation for being both boy-crazy and unwilling to joke about it. See: Swift’s string of high-profile relationships with Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner , Jake Gyllenhaal and Harry Styles ; her alleged wedding-crashing with Conor Kennedy; her humourless response to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s joke at the 2013 Golden Globes about her dating life. (“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” she told Vanity Fair when asked about the incident.) Erickson declined to comment for this story.

Paine, who had been working as the senior vice president of publicity in the Christian and Country divisions of Warner Music Nashville, came on board and quickly flipped the script. She launched her own firm, Premium PR, and signed Swift as her first and only client. “There isn’t a publicist in NY, LA or Nashville that wouldn’t jump at an opportunity to work with someone as talented as Taylor Swift and her management team,” Paine told Page Six at the time.

That year, Swift moved from Nashville to New York, went full pop with the release of 1989 and began flaunting her friendships with a gaggle of famous women, known colloquially as The Squad. The public started to forget about the time Swift, age 22, allegedly bought a house across the street from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

Throughout this transformation, Paine refused to let rumours about her client fester. The very week her hiring was announced, she began issuing public rebuttals to the tabloids. “Never believe the National Enquirer,” she tweeted about an apparently false story that Swift declined to record a duet with Randy Travis. Ten years later, the gossip about Swift has changed, but Paine’s approach has not: She recently called out the anonymous gossip account Deuxmoi for causing “pain and trauma” by posting false rumours about Swift secretly marrying Alwyn before the two broke up.

Paine became even more visible to fans in 2020, when she appeared in Swift’s Netflix documentary Miss Americana . Wearing white shorts and blue nail polish, she clinked white-wine glasses with Swift as the singer-songwriter anxiously prepared to post her first political statement on Instagram. Swifties have since turned Paine into something of a meme: Online, they joke that Swift’s “Out of the Woods” lyric “the monsters turned out to be just trees” is a reference to the publicist and that a redheaded Eras Tour backup dancer is Tree-coded. They have decided that in the inevitable Paine biopic, the publicist will be played by Amy Adams, and that she will win her first Oscar for it.

The fan obsession has been fuelled, in part, by how little Paine has shared publicly about herself. Her Instagram is private. The last time she sat for an interview was 2012, when she was a VP at Warner and appeared in Nashville Lifestyles ’ “Most Beautiful People” issue; she posed for a photo in front of a shiplap-covered wall wearing a peasant blouse and made the astonishing revelation that she was “trying to enjoy life.” I cannot report whether that is still true; Paine declined to be interviewed for this story.

Born Trina Snyder, Paine grew up in Costa Mesa, California. She was still going by Trina when she was initiated into Pi Beta Phi at the University of Southern California in 1990, according to the women’s fraternity’s official publication, The Arrow .

Like her client, Paine is a Nashville transplant. In her early career, she worked her way up at a variety of L.A. record labels—World Domination, Maverick and Interscope, whose roster included Snoop Dogg, No Doubt, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. She launched her own guerrilla-marketing company, worked for the Academy of Country Music and eventually joined Warner Music in Tennessee.

In 1998, she married Lance Paine, a businessman and onetime president of the Nashville candy brand Goo Goo Cluster, in Las Vegas, according to public records. (Lance also served as president of the company owned by HGTV’s Property Brothers.) The Paines have one teenage daughter, and according to the society pages, they have spent some nights mixing with locals at Nashville charity galas.

But mostly, Paine works. She has built a fearsome reputation in media circles, closely guarding access to Swift and sending emails to journalists with surprising velocity whenever she disagrees with a story. “Once I started working in media, I would always hear about people getting emails from Tree Paine, or maybe, people being afraid of getting emails from Tree Paine,” says Hunter Harris, a self-described “Painiac” and the writer of the entertainment newsletter Hung Up , which regularly chronicles Paine’s engagement with the press. (Harris has also contributed to WSJ. Magazine .)

In the past 10 years, Paine has guided Swift through some of the more tumultuous moments of her career: her feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West; her trial accusing a former DJ of sexual assault; her battle against her former label , Scooter Braun and private-equity giants for the control of her master recordings. At almost every turn, Paine presents Swift—arguably the most famous woman on the planet, a billionaire with a private jet—as a relatable underdog fighting for her voice to be heard.

It has, for the most part, worked. In the process, Paine has become one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry.

Getting any kind of journalistic access to Swift has become a fool’s errand. The star sits for few magazine interviews, and in between, Paine does her best to ensure that no information about Swift that Swift has not expressly chosen to share with the public becomes available. One magazine writer recalls the slightly fraught process of interviewing another artist on one of Swift’s stadium tours a few years ago. As a condition of the interview, the writer had to agree that anything they witnessed or discovered about Swift while spending time with the other artist before a show would be off the record. Paine was clear: No journalist is going to catch Swift in her sweatpants backstage and write about it.

When writer Emily Kirkpatrick reached out last year to seek Swift’s comment for a profile of the actress and musician Suki Waterhouse for the fashion website Ssense, Paine surprisingly acquiesced, with the caveat that Swift’s quote be printed in full—no edits, no line breaks. (Kirkpatrick, annoyed, accepted the terms.)

This is an understandable sticking point for Paine. The Kardashian-West debacle revolved, in large part, around a truncated recording of Swift. Before the rapper released the single “Famous,” which contained lewd lyrics about Swift, they spoke by phone, where he asked her to promote the track on Twitter. For years, a snippet of the call released by Kardashian painted Swift as a liar who publicly rejected the lyrics but privately approved them. When someone released the full call online—a friendly heads-up but one in which West never shares the final lyric (“I made that bitch famous”)—Kardashian tried to save face. “To be clear, the only issue I ever had around the situation was that Taylor lied through her publicist who stated that ‘Kanye never called to ask for permission…,’ ” she tweeted. But Paine never said that exactly. She tweeted a rejoinder: “I’m Taylor’s publicist and this is my UNEDITED original statement. Btw, when you take parts out, that’s editing. P.S. who did you guys piss off to leak that video?”

The biggest year of Swift’s career has also been her most public yet. There’s the tour, the new album, the NFL boyfriend , the constant tabloid coverage of her relationship with the NFL boyfriend, the never-ending paparazzi strolls with her famous friends at sceney New York City restaurants. There have been stumbles: Swift forgot to thank Celine Dion, who presented the album of the year award, when accepting her Grammy. (A photo of the two singers hugging circulated online later.) She’s still taking heat for her private jet. She dated Matty Healy.

But the sheer volume of information about Swift that pours, ceaselessly, out of every tabloid and news outlet from the Daily Mail to the New York Times typically washes away negative stories as soon as they are published. There are fans who speculate that Paine sent Swift to Kelce’s regular-season game against the New York Jets in October so that internet searches for “Taylor Swift jets” would return cheery images of Swift dancing in a VIP suite with Blake Lively instead of stats about CO2 emissions.

Swift is at a point in her career, however, where she could completely disappear from view and still generate more headlines than just about any other person on earth. Scientists at Caltech and UCLA recently published research proving the existence of “Swift quakes” (seismic activity caused by fans dancing and jumping at concerts). shared on social media that Swift is a sixth cousin, three times removed, of poet Emily Dickinson. The New York Post talked to experts to guesstimate how much Kelce has spent wooing Swift so far (more than $8 million, allegedly).

If Swift released The Tortured Poets Department with zero fanfare, it would probably still hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. But she chooses to feed the beast—with black-and-white Instagram posts, snippets of possible lyrics, a pop-up poetry library, so many vinyl editions —and, with Paine’s help, make her own news.


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Platforms are paying less for popular posts, brands are pickier about partnerships and a possible TikTok ban looms

Wed, Jun 19, 2024 9 min

Many people dream of becoming social-media stars like YouTube’s MrBeast or TikTok’s Charli D’Amelio . But for most who pursue careers as content creators, just making ends meet is a lofty goal.

Clint Brantley has been a full-time creator for three years, posting videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch where he comments on news and trends related to the online game “Fortnite.” Despite having more than 400,000 followers, and posts that average 100,000 views, his income last year was less than the median annual pay for full-time U.S. workers in 2023—$58,084, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Clint Brantley, a full-time creator, draws an average of 100,000 views for his ‘Fortnite’-related videos on TikTok, YouTube and Twitch. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The 29-year-old is hesitant to commit to an apartment lease because the money he gets, mainly from online tips and sponsorship deals, arrives randomly and could vanish at any moment. For now, he’s living with his mom in Washington state.

“I’m vulnerable,” he says.

Earning a decent, reliable income as a social-media creator is a slog—and it’s getting harder. Platforms are doling out less money for popular posts and brands are being pickier about what they want out of sponsorship deals. The real possibility of TikTok potentially shutting down in 2025 is adding to creators’ anxiety over whether they can afford to stick with the job for the long haul.

Few overnight sensations

Hundreds of millions of people around the globe regularly post videos and photos to entertain or educate social-media users. About 50 million earn money from it, according to a 2023 report from Goldman Sachs . The investment bank expects the number of creator-earners to grow at an annual rate of 10% to 20% through 2028, crowding the field even further. The Labor Department doesn’t track wages for these creators, also known as influencers.

It can take months or years to earn money as a creator, often through a combination of direct revenue from social-media platforms, sponsorship deals, merchandise sales and affiliate links. But those who stick with it eventually see some returns, surveys show. Creators say that’s because you can learn what kind of posts most resonate with an audience, which can lead to more followers and, in turn, more moneymaking opportunities.

But money doesn’t mean big bucks . Last year, 48% of creator-earners made $15,000 or less, according to NeoReach, an influencer marketing agency. Only 13% made more than $100,000.

The gap reflects multiple factors, including whether creators work full- or part-time, the kind of content they put out and when they started. People who jumped into the space during the height of Covid-19 lockdowns—and who focused on a niche such as fashion, investing or lifestyle hacks—say they benefited from the surge in social-media use during that time.

A small number of creators shot to fame, propelling the occupation to the top of career wish lists for many teens (and adults). But behind the scenes, creators say the job is gruelling. They need to constantly produce compelling posts or risk losing momentum. They spend their days planning, filming and editing posts while also working to make inroads with advertisers and interacting with fans.

“It is a lot more work than most people realise,” says Emarketer analyst Jasmine Enberg. “Creators who make a living doing it have been at it for many years. Most are not overnight sensations.”

Like other self-employed professionals, creators don’t get paid time off, healthcare benefits, retirement contributions and other perks that companies typically provide for their workers. That reality, coupled with stubbornly high inflation and mortgage rates , is making it more difficult to get by as a creator.

Brantley works on editing a coming video. The online tips and sponsorship deals that make up his income can be erratic, so for now the 29-year-old continues to live with his mom in Spokane, Wash. PHOTO: RAJAH BOSE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Everything is more expensive, especially groceries,” says Jason Cooper of Mobile, Ala.

A few years ago, Cooper dreamed up a sassy sock puppet named Sock Cop, who cracks dad jokes in live and recorded videos for TikTok and Twitch. He currently makes $500 to $600 a month, almost entirely from tips.

He thinks he could probably haul in a lot more if he went full-time. But with no guarantee, the 37-year-old father doesn’t want to quit his marketing job and risk losing health coverage. He now spends a few hours in the evening and on weekends on Sock Cop. If he had more time, he would feel the need to constantly make videos.

“You’ve got to feed the beast,” says Cooper.

Shrinking platform payouts

TikTok’s $1 billion creator fund, which ran from 2020 to 2023, doled out money to eligible creators for posting to the platform. Others joined in. YouTube’s TikTok competitor, Shorts, allowed creators to earn anywhere from $100 to $10,000 a month with its temporary fund. Instagram’s Reels Play bonus program rewarded creators with fluctuating payouts. Snapchat ’s Spotlight rewards program gave $1 million a day to the platform’s top creators.

Today, the platforms have revamped or completely changed how they pay creators—doing away with their funds.

Qualifications for TikTok’s current rewards program include having an account with at least 10,000 followers with a minimum of 100,000 views in the past month. Instagram is currently testing a seasonal, invitation-only program that rewards creators for sharing Reels and photos.

YouTube debuted an ad-revenue share model last year, in which qualifying creators with more than 1,000 subscribers and 10 million public Shorts views in the past 90 days receive 45% of revenue from ads that occur between posts. Snapchat has a program that gives creators who meet certain criteria, such as having at least 50,000 followers and 25 million monthly views, a portion of the ad revenue that appears between Stories. Its Spotlight program also continues to dole out money to creators.

Creators who opt into these programs or bonuses aren’t guaranteed a significant payday.

Yuval Ben-Hayun originally became popular on TikTok in 2020 because of his posts about the word-puzzle game Wordle. The 29-year-old New Yorker eventually expanded into linguistic and other education content, and by early 2023, was able to support himself and his bills of over $4,000 a month.

TikTok had closed its fund by then but was testing its creator rewards program. Ben-Hayun said in March he received about $200 to $400 per million views, and it’s steadily declined since then—even as his follower count reached 2.9 million.

The followers are still there, but the money isn’t. He recently hit a new low, receiving only $120 for a video with 10 million views.

Danisha Carter uses her phone and a ring light to create content for her TikTok channel, where she has 1.8 million followers. PHOTO: JESSICA PONS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

Danisha Carter is frustrated that TikTok and other platforms sold the idea of content creation as a job, but later withdrew the financial incentives. Thanks to creators’ efforts, she says, consumers are now hooked on social feeds, bringing the platforms billions of dollars in annual revenue.

The 26-year-old has 1.8 million TikTok followers, and her posts about beauty and exercise, along with opinions on topics ranging from dating to online bullying, regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views. TikTok has paid her a total of $12,000, Carter says. She sells merchandise for additional income, bringing in about $5,000 last year.

“Creators should be paid a fair percentage based on what the apps are making off creators,” says Carter. “There should be more transparency into how we’re paid, and it should be consistent.”

A TikTok spokeswoman declined to comment.

YouTube said it paid more than $70 billion to creators, artists and media companies in the past three years, and more than 25% of channels in the ad-revenue share model are now making money through it. “We remain committed to putting our full energy into what matters most for our creators, viewers and advertisers,” a spokeswoman said.

A future without TikTok?

Many creators and advertisers credit TikTok, which pioneered the short-form video genre, with driving stronger engagement than its industry peers. TikTok has gained more than 170 million users in the U.S. since its launch in 2016—including, Pew Research Center says, a third of American adults. They spend an average of 78 minutes a day on the app, according to market-intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

TikTok may not be available in the U.S. for much longer, at least not in its current form. In April, President Biden signed a bill into law that will force a sale or ban of the app by Jan. 19, 2025. U.S. lawmakers have expressed worries that TikTok poses a national security risk. TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, has said it can’t and won’t sell its U.S. operations by the deadline.

ByteDance sued the U.S. government, alleging the new law violates its First Amendment rights. Several U.S. creators also sued. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will hear arguments in September for both cases.

“To lose TikTok would be kind of devastating,” says Brandon Granberg , a 31-year-old creator from Bayville, N.J., known for interacting with strangers in public places in silly ways.

Granberg struggled for years to attract viewers on the app before one viral post two years ago took his follower count from 5,000 to more than one million. Recently he made $1,000 from a TikTok program that launched last year called TikTok Creative Challenge, which allows creators ​to earn money by making video ads for brands that don’t appear on their personal profiles. He also earned $2,800 for producing four TikTok videos promoting a website for people with foot fetishes. Granberg says he found it creepy, but did it because he needed the money.

While he hasn’t landed many other sponsored posts, he’s grown his income significantly by making marketing videos for small businesses over the past year. Most clients find Granberg on TikTok. “If it gets banned, it will definitely hurt me,” he says.

Changing tastes and algorithms

This year, U.S. social-media creators as a whole are expected to make $13.7 billion, according to Emarketer. The research firm projects the majority of that—$8.14 billion, or 59%—will come from brand sponsorships.

Advertisers have always led in compensating creators, paying out far more money than the social-media platforms and fans who buy merchandise or dole out tips. But these days, advertisers expect more from creators than just large followings, according to agency and talent representatives. They want to see evidence of strong engagement in the form of saved and shared posts, plus the demographics of creators’ audiences.

“Brands are looking at metrics that are far less predictable for creators and also very difficult to price yourself on,” says Sarah Peretz, a business-strategy consultant in Los Angeles who helps creators negotiate partnerships and deals with advertisers.

Some brands are more controlling than in the past, says Sarah Steele , a 34-year-old creator in Tulsa, Okla., who started making TikTok videos about being a working mom in 2020. “Now it’s, ‘We’re paying you and this is what we want you to say.’ ”

Earlier this year, Steele says an advertiser insisted she cite legal disclaimers in a series of sponsored Instagram posts. “It felt like I was reading off a teleprompter,” she says. “As a consumer it even turned me off to the brand a little bit.”

Creators, meanwhile, are having a tougher time attracting viewers, thanks to algorithm changes and other factors beyond their control. And while more advertisers are looking to partner with creators than in the past, “increased activity leads to increased competition,” says Peretz.

Another change is that advertisers now prefer to work with just a handful of creators on long-lasting deals rather than experiment with several on one-off projects, says Jess Hunichen, of Shine Talent Group.

Hunichen co-founded the talent-management agency in 2015, when TikTok didn’t exist and influencer marketing was still relatively new. Back then, an average deal size between an influencer and brand was usually below $1,000. Now, the average deal per campaign is around $10,000, she says.

Worth the hustle

Ronit Halmos of Los Angeles began making TikTok videos earlier this year that she describes as quick-reviews of restaurants, bars and more “with some sass and attitude.”

The 27-year-old, a full-time technology recruiter, recently landed her first advertiser deal. A kombucha brand asked her to make a 30-second post featuring her take on a line of flavors. Though it ended up getting less attention from viewers than her usual fare, she made $1,500 from about 30 minutes of work.

Tyler Haven , a 27-year-old traveling around the Pacific Northwest, charges $250 to $300 to make promotional videos that brands can post to their own social channels, and around $1,200 for posts that appear on either his Instagram account with more than 41,000 followers or his TikTok account with more than 10,000 followers.

Since January, he’s been posting videos documenting his “van-life” with his wife, Oak Haven: Their primary residence is a fully paid, fully decked-out 2004 Mercedes Sprinter T1N.

Haven said it’s been easy to grow his following organically. He believes it’s because his posts don’t depict some unattainable, picture-perfect life.

He quit his job in June to pursue full-time content creation.

“Even if I were to make $2,000 a month, which is absolutely nothing—that’s less than most people’s rent—I could live on that,” Haven says.

With the van fully paid off, the 27-year-old says he and his wife, Oak Haven, can get by with even a small income from his videos. PHOTO: TODD MEIER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL