Is Taylor Swift the most powerful person in America? It would certainly seem that way after this week's to-do about Apple's new streaming service. As Fast Company put it, the "world's biggest pop star" went up against the "world's biggest technology company" and the pop star reigned supreme.
Apple unveiled its new streaming service earlier this month, set to launch June 30. The service will have two pay-for-service tiers with a three-month trial. All of this sounds like a great model to rival Spotify, who has a firm hold in the music streaming market, except for one crucial detail: in the free trial period, Apple opted not to pay royalties to artists.
Taylor Swift wasn't having it.
In an open letter to Apple on her tumblr site, Swift announced she would be withholding her album, 1989, from the streaming service, because "it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing." She went on to reiterate that "this is not about me," and that, now on her fifth album, she can support herself, but that she was speaking up on behalf of peers in her "social circles who are afraid to speak up publicly because we admire and respect Apple so much." She ended her letter by saying, "we don't ask you for free iPhones. Please don't ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation."
Her argument--that the biggest technology company in the world can afford to pay its artists royalties during this period--makes perfect sense. But perhaps no one expected it to work so, er, swiftly. Less than 24 hours after this was posted, Apple's senior VP of Internet software and services, Eddy Cue, changed the policy. He told the New York Times, ""When I woke up this morning and read Taylor's note, it really solidified that we need to make a change."
#AppleMusic will pay artist for streaming, even during customer's free trial period- Eddy Cue (@cue) June 22, 2015
We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists. Love, Apple- Eddy Cue (@cue) June 22, 2015
Taylor Swift tweeted her thanks, as did Elvis Costello, who called Swift "our future president:"
I am elated and relieved. Thank you for your words of support today. They listened to us.- Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) June 22, 2015
Last year, Swift pulled her entire catalog from Spotify over a dispute about royalties. Spotify, unlike Apple Music, has a permanent free tier. Apple's decision to reverse their stance after Swift's public decry signals a serious concern for their public image a week before the launch of this major service. But not everyone is calling Swift a savior. Pandora cofounder Tom Conrad took to Twitter to point out that Apple's reversed decision doesn't make them saintly because it simply puts them in line with every other streaming service, and that Swift's career has many hypocrisies in it as far as fairness goes, including her non-issues with YouTube and terrestrial radio, which both use her music for free.
3/ Swift never pulled from YouTube which is the most popular free service and certainly devalues music if Spotify does.- Tom Conrad (@tconrad) June 22, 2015
4/ Swift's career was built on terrestrial radio play, which is a free service AND doesn't pay recording artists a dime.- Tom Conrad (@tconrad) June 22, 2015
7/ Swift's letter and Apple's response is mostly theater. Nothing here to suggest Apple treats artists more fairly than anyone else.- Tom Conrad (@tconrad) June 22, 2015
8/ My point is this: there is too much animus between artists & Silicon Valley. We shouldn't herald this move as progress. It's status quo.- Tom Conrad (@tconrad) June 22, 2015
Many are recalling Lars Ulrich's (of Metallica) stance against Napster in the early aughts. Metallica was vilified by the audience then, who had never seen a free download service like this before. But times are changing, and Swift is a very different star than Metallica, and today's streaming services are very different than Napster's inchoate service. The parallel doesn't quite hold up, but the principle is similar: in the face of tech innovation, companies can't forget fair compensation for artists and work. And now with Twitter and tumblr, artists like Swift have a megaphone that has the capability to tarnish brands' public image. What would have been different had Ulrich had Twitter to explain his stance and embrace his fans?
Whether or not Swift is a hypocrite or a savior for struggling indie artists (or perhaps both?) is still undetermined, but one thing is clear: when Swift talks, the world listens. Maybe she should ask for free iPhones.
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