Crossing the Streams: Apple Music’s Swift Coup

Apple’s U-turn on royalties is one of the great PR stunts of our time. Just days after the multi-billion dollar company announced a 30-day free trial of its streaming service, pop juggernaut Taylor Swift penned a much-circulated tumblr post decrying how the company would not be paying artists royalties from streams during this period. Apple Music’s Eddy Cue then announced a backtrack on this policy, tweeting that ‘Apple Music will pay artist[s] for streaming, even during customer’s free trial period.’ We hear you Taylor Swift and indie artists, he added.

Of course, whether or not Swift and Apple actually colluded in secret can only be speculated. Still, the whole episode is genius from a marketing perspective, and represents a bold power play from two giants of commercial and cultural capital. It was not long before this story was picked up worldwide, and it isn’t difficult to see the immense benefits it has to both parties. Taylor Swift got to continue to be in the headlines, as well as maintain her status as a champion of artist’s rights and all-round nice person. Apple got to act like it actually gave a shit about artists while simultaneously sticking the boot into Spotify, whose issues of artist payment have been the target of much controversy.

And boy did it work a treat. USA Today called it a ‘sweet smackdown’, while Forbes remarked that Swift’s ‘win’ over Apple had cemented her ‘Elite Powerbroker Status.’ Musicians and recording artists all the way from Elvis Costello to El-P lauded her stance as sticking up for the rights of musicians, with the underground rapper and producer stating that she ‘just fully earned my respect.’ Which I suppose is kind of a big deal, especially considering how much he hated ‘Welcome to New York.’

Let’s step away from the adoration of Christ-apparent Swift for a moment and actually examine this series of events. As Billboard pointed out, ‘one might wonder why Apple, as savvy a company as exists, failed to anticipate music industry backlash over its proposed deal. One might also wonder why a company renowned for its negotiating skill so quickly admitted defeat on this particular deal point.’ Why indeed.

As Bloomberg reported back in April, Apple has been courting musicians such as Florence and the Machine and Taylor Swift in an attempt to sign streaming deals. Taylor Swift, as powerful as she is, cannot resist streaming forever without alienating a sizeable portion of her listening base. The success of streaming services like Spotify only goes to show that people are, on balance, not too fussed about purchasing music if the access is there and can be obtained for a relatively low cost. As critic Anthony Fantano pointed out, streaming hasn’t devalued music – listeners have.

If streaming is inevitable for pop artists (and indeed, artists of any genre), why should Taylor Swift, arguably one of the biggest acts of our time, be so set against it? When she ‘criticised’ Apple Music for their policy on royalties, it wasn’t the first time she had gone out to bat against streaming. She famously removed her discography from Spotify last year, and wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which she unequivocally stated that ‘music should not be free.’ Which sounds like the sort of thing Lars Ulrich would have, only Swift managed to avoid being called greedy and instead was seen as a supporter of independent musicians, something the Metallica drummer summarily failed to do.

Who is Taylor Swift referring to when she speaks of independent artists? Is it the small-time music-makers or is it actually the record labels themselves? It could well be both of course, but I can’t help but feel that the real issue is to do with the threat of diminished sales. Naturally, a dent in album revenue has a big effect on the artist, but an even greater one on the label, who (depending on what kind of deal the artist has) have traditionally taken a bigger slice of any money made.

The issue here is that a lot of people, musicians and labels alike, tend to view a stream as a sale. So big, commercial artists may get millions of streams but are unlikely to see much return because of the amount owed to labels, studios, and so on. Conversely, small artists might get a larger share of the profit, but because of their size and popularity, the money made will not amount to anything significant.

As labels tend to take a bigger share of the profit from an artist’s work, they are bound to be hurt more than the artists when it comes to streaming. Mark Mulligan of Music Industry Blog has argued that Taylor Swift is still indebted to the old model of record label. Given that Swift’s success has so far has largely been linked to her label and their work in promoting her, it is understandable why she would be so quick to argue against a new means of consuming music, especially if it poses an existential threat to the recording industry as we know it.

I want streaming to be fairer. I think Taylor Swift (whatever her intentions) is right to point out the issues with pay. But this problem goes further than just companies not paying their musicians enough, and to pretend otherwise misses the bigger picture entirely. I’m by no means representative of most people, but I stream music because I simply can’t afford to buy all the records that I want. I tend to support a few artists that I really care deeply about and are probably not swanning around on a yacht somewhere, but on the whole, I will use a streaming service to listen to most of my music and try out new stuff before I commit to purchasing. If you want to accurately approach the problem of streaming music and the cost it has on musicians and labels, this is an attitude and mentality that you simply cannot afford to overlook. The troubles that Jay-Z and friends face with Tidal only go to demonstrate this fact.

The alignment of Swift and Apple Music looks set to turn Apple Music into the first real threat to Spotify’s throne. Just this week the company announced a number of high-profile exclusives such as Pharrell’s new single, and also struck a deal with Beggars Group, the organisation that handles such independent labels as 4AD, XL, Matador and Rough Trade. And, lo and behold, come the week’s end, Taylor Swift announced via Twitter that she would, in fact, be putting her multi-platinum album ‘1989’ up on the streaming service.

The Taylor Swift and Apple Music saga was a perfectly executed coup, raising the stakes and putting the streaming service firmly on everyone’s radar. Of course, Apple were always going to be a formidable challenge. Given that all this should happen in the same week that another Tidal boss quit, as well as the puny reception that Google Play’s announcement received, shows exactly why the tech giant is not one to be trifled with. According to the New York Times, the new service has the potential to draw 100 million subscribers over the next two years, and considering how the company are currently valued at $700 billion dollars, I think it’s safe to assume that they are in no trouble of running low on financial backing.

The question of whether or not independent artists will actually benefit from being on Apple Music remains to be seen. Personally I doubt that this really represents a significant win for artists but who knows. Whatever else, Taylor Swift and Apple Music have steered the conversation in their favour and have come out on top. They will forever be known as the real winners here.

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