Taylor Swift's Apple reversal sounds like a win for artists, but it's not
In less than 24 hours, Apple went from the undesirable position of being an enemy to Taylor Swift, to becoming once again the music industry's best friend -- at least when compared to the other largely-hated streaming platforms.
In case you have better things to do on a Sunday than watch music industry squabbles play out on social networks (I don't), here's what happened: Apple had announced it would offer a free three month trial to users of its upcoming streaming service, Apple Music. During this time, the company had elected not to pay rights holders any royalties, under the logic that if Apple wasn't getting paid nobody would get paid.
Over the weekend, Taylor Swift -- who most recently flexed her muscles at streaming companies when she removed her catalog from Spotify -- wrote a Tumblr post decrying Apple and announced that she would hold back her newest hit album, 1989, from the streaming service unless it reversed course and paid artists during the trial period.
"We don’t ask you for free iPhones," Swift wrote. "Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation."
At this point, it appeared that the argument was just another chapter in the battle between Taylor and the tech industry. Then late last night, Apple's SVP of internet services and software Eddy Cue sent the following tweet:
#AppleMusic will pay artist for streaming, even during customer’s free trial period— Eddy Cue (@cue) June 22, 2015
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Cue also picked up the phone and called Swift, who said she was "elated and relieved."
And thus launched an avalanche of mini-hot takes on Twitter that ranged from, "It's a win for consumers!" to "It's a win for artists!" to the least interesting of the three, "I can't believe they used Tumblr and Twitter to broker a massive content deal!"
Even major tech entrepreneurs were awed and a little jealous...
There are so many term sheets I'd love to go back in time and renegotiate with Taylor Swift's help.— Aaron Levie (@levie) June 22, 2015
But a few questions remain in the wake of all these good pro-Apple vibes -- questions that, depending on the answers, make this feel like less of a win for creatives than many have made it out to be.
First off, throughout the negotiations with record companies ahead of Apple Music's launch, Apple was saddled by some fairly onerous and greed-driven demands from labels, as I've detailed here. As rights holders of this content, labels hold the power in these talks, and frankly Apple could dictate no terms of this deal without the permission of the labels. I mean, the deal almost fell apart in the eleventh hour over 5 percentage points! So while I don't doubt that it was Apple's choice to launch a trial period and to not pay artists during those three months, they did so with the blessing of the labels.
I wonder, then, what Apple gave up to labels in return? Was it that increase in royalty payments of 5 percentage points? An increase that artists weren't likely to see in their coffers anyway because labels already take such huge chunks of these payments? Did it have to do with the monthly rate, which Apple wanted to keep at a much more affordable -- but still wildly lucrative for rights holders -- $5 a month? But which Apple, at the behest of labels, made $10 a month, despite many observers being unconvinced that consumers will pay that much?
Like most battles between creatives and tech corporations, this fight has been framed by many as operating in a vacuum between two opposing sides, while the people in the middle who work for record labels are ignored despite the fact that none of what Apple's done here would have been possible without their consent. In fact, the tidiness of this resolution feels just a tad suspicious. I'm not saying that this fight was ginned up to draw positive attention toward Apple or Taylor Swift or both. But if it was, it would be pretty brilliant PR move.
Whatever happened behind closed doors, the Apple Music-Taylor Swift fight feels like a less win for artists and more like a win for... Apple Music and Taylor Swift. Or for those other rare artists who possess enough control over their rights to dictate how and when their catalog is monetized and to secure a healthy percentage of that money for themselves. The truth is, most artists are forced to give up most of their royalties to labels and lack the luxury of removing their catalog from a streaming service if that service strikes a deal with labels that's perceived to be unfair. And no, I don't mean these artists lack the popularity to convince Apple to change its mind by withholding content. I mean they literally have no control over whether or not their music appears on Apple Music because that decision is made by their label -- which I guess makes sense considering the label's the one keeping most of the money.
And so, no: This isn't a big win for artists. For artists without Swift's control, most of that extra money from the three-month period will go in the pockets of labels. Instead, it's just another example of how the lack of transparency in content deals often screws over artists.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]