Taylor Swift's death glare defeats Apple Music in fee-related stare-out contest
Computer giant agrees to pay artists' royalties during free trial period
In a dramatic U-turn, Apple Inc has announced that it will, after all, pay royalties to artists during the three-month trial period of their upcoming Apple Music streaming service. The company had originally brokered a deal with record companies whereby it wouldn't pay royalties while users were trying out the system. However, following a highly effective display of scolding from über-star Taylor Swift, the computer giant folded quicker than a gambling-averse fatalist at a No-Limits Holdem tournament. Apple's Eddie Cue, senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, tweeted on Sunday night that Apple 'will pay artists for streaming, even during customer’s free trial period' and added 'We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists.'
Swift was only the most high-profile of a slew of musicians who made their displeasure known at Apple's no-royalties stance, posting a 'To Apple, Love Taylor' open letter to the corporation on her tumblr site in which she cunningly praised Apple for being 'historically progressive' while professing that she found it 'shocking' that it could arrive at a deal so prejudicial to artists who, unlike her, can't support themselves by playing big tours, and announcing that she would not make her 1989 album available for streaming on Apple Music.
It's easy to be cynical about Swift's motives, but as she herself pointed out, in common with most musicians who make a living from their music, it wasn't like she needed the royalties from Apple: the bulk of her income comes from playing live. In any case, even before Apple announced its policy reversal, the indie musicians that she claimed to be speaking for had gone to social media to thank her for making their case. Streaming is, for the great bulk of musicians, a drastically unprofitable medium. The figures show that by far the most profitable way for musicians to get their music to people is to make and distribute their own CDs; streaming services like Spotify and Deezer typically pay artists an average of a few hundredths of a cent per play, which if your latest single gets played several million times, works very well, but otherwise not so much.
The fuss about payments stems from the music industry's flailing attempts to recover the kind of profits they made back in the days when they sold plastic things in shops. There is still a strong body of opinion which believes that music everywhere ought to be free, but when an NPR intern blithely admitted that although she had more than 11,000 titles in her music library she'd only ever paid for 15 CDs in her life, singer-songwriter David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker) published a withering retort in which he pointed out that although she was perfectly willing to pay large corporations good money for expensive electronic equipment on which to listen to music, she was apparently unwilling to pay a cent to the musicians she was listening to.
Perhaps the central problem is that, now the music industry can no longer point to its manufacturing base as justification for the enormous profit it awards itself, it's a little hard to see what it's there for. Ever since Napster blazed across our skies like a beautiful, larcenous shooting star, the industry has made blunder after blunder in an attempt to 'make digital distribution work for everyone', a phrase unpacked with beautiful severity by veteran producer and Shellac frontman Steve Albini in his speech to the Face the Music conference in Melbourne last year. Albini pointed out that the very notion of 'distribution' doesn't make sense when digital files can be copied by anyone, and that given the vast historical unfairness of the music industry, which has always placed both audience and musicians at the bottom of the pyramid of esteem, the idea that any given music distribution model needs to work for 'everyone' should be viewed with suspicion. But, like Taylor Swift and unlike David Lowery, Steve Albini plays a lot of gigs.
In the meantime, Swift and a bunch of people you've never heard of have secured those crucial hundredths of cents for bands that could really use the money. And the music industry's hubris takes another beating.
Apple Music launches worldwide on Tue 30 Jun. Taylor Swift's 1989 is out now.