(UPDATED) Taylor Swift vs. Apple: Who Really Runs the Music Biz?

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Apple caved when Taylor Swift threatened to pull from its new streaming service. If she's running the music biz now, what will she do with her superpowers? (© AXELLE/Bauergriffin.com/Corbis photo)
Apple caved when Taylor Swift threatened to pull from its new streaming service. If she’s running the music biz now, what will she do with her superpowers? (© AXELLE/Bauergriffin.com/Corbis photo)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated; please see below original text

Apple recently announced its streaming music service, but hid a bit of bad news for the artists involved in this deal: During Apple Music’s free, three-month trial period, artists and record labels would not be compensated for any music listened to during that time. Taylor Swift went on Tumblr Sunday morning with something to say about that:

“I write this to explain why I’ll be holding back my album, 1989, from the new streaming service… I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.”

Even if you’re not a real fan of her music (hand raised here), you gotta admire her for sticking up for the little guys/gals in the music biz — especially considering that Apple is the biggest company on the planet. Then a funny thing happened later that same day Swift wrote her Tumblr post: Apple exec Eddy Cue gave this response on Twitter:

It looked like the huge multi-billion tech company caved in, reversed itself and offered to pay out artists during the trial period. This is a huge deal for the music biz. So, what’s really going on here?


Yep. It doesn’t wanna admit it because it’ll look like it’s at her beck and call, but the swiftness (ha, ha) of Apple’s turnaround of its policy is head-spinning. Indie labels have complained about the Apple streaming deal for weeks, though Apple CEO Tim Cook and friends haven’t been receptive to their demands. When Swift talks though, they listen: Re/code has some great behind-the-scenes details about this drama, and Geek Culture has this cool cartoon about how Swift kicked Apple’s butt.

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 3.48.50 PM
(GeekCulture.com photo)


Ain’t it amazing that one single artist has this much clout to change the music biz? What other megastar could make it turnaround like that? Swift’s not just any major-leaguer, though — she’s in a rarefied position where she’s one of the few longterm acts left who can always get multi-platinum sales for her albums, so she’s got crazy clout, outselling Beyonce, Katy Perry and others and was even noted as a marketing genius by Forbes magazine.


The Swift one had another tussle with a big streaming service last fall. She told Spotify that she didn’t want her music there since it offered a free streaming tier along with a paid tier.

So, did that spat have some affect on how Apple reacted here? Even with millions of people already in their music/iTunes system, Apple is still a latecomer to an already-crowded streaming music market that includes Tidal (which doesn’t have a rosy future right now), Rhapsody, Google Play and Pandora. Plus, Apple had some lukewarm shrugs about its upcoming service. As such, the Cupertino, Calif.-based crew didn’t wanna cross Swift and make the same mistake that Spotify seemed to. Spotify insists that it needs the free option to draw more paying users into its service, but will it buckle under pressure after Apple just caved in? The answer will probably depend on how well Apple’s service does.

Also, this dust-up does nothing to address these streaming services’ biggest problem: tiny profit margins thanks to payoffs they have to make to the majors to license their music. Even Apple isn’t expected to mint big bucks directly from its streaming service; as with iTunes, the real motive is to hook you into its hardware/software services (iPhone, iTunes). And unlike the other streamers, Apple can absorb losses more easily since it has big profits otherwise. As you’ll see in a sec, though, this label-payout issue becomes bad news for the people who these services should be supporting.


True, artists/songwriters now have better deals from streaming that they’ll get from Apple now. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to make anywhere near what they would with record sales. Want to see how tiny the payout is for artists for streaming services? Information is Beautiful has an eye-opening chart which shows how many streams an artist must have just to make minimum wage. It’s truly staggering and pathetic.


Ideally, choice is a good thing. If you don’t like one of the streaming services, you can jump to another one. But that also means that you have to deal with different sets of rules, restrictions for each, not to mention having to pay out for each one if you want its exclusive content. Nothing about that changes here and, if anything, it’s gonna get worse.


After Swift trounced Apple, her winning ways started memes all over the place about what her next move should be. My favorite was from Omar Gallaga of the Austin American-Statesman who tweeted this:

So far, Swift has seemed to fight the good fight, so here’s hoping that she doesn’t stop there. Note to Ms. Swift: USE YOUR SUPERPOWERS TO BECOME HEAD OF THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF MUSICIANS. They need need you, and you know how to bargain.

But, with great power comes great responsibility — just ask anyone on “Game of Thrones.” If she can roll Apple here, what if Swift goes rogue and decides that she wants some wacky demands for herself? Is it safe to invest so much power and authority in her? We can only hope that she’ll remain a force for good, or it won’t just be the music biz that will be doomed. And then we can only pray that she’ll be a benevolent overlord.

UPDATE:  Some breaking news makes us wonder if the Swift dust-up had a ripple effect or if another behind-the-scenes battle helped Apple change its mind about being artist friendly: A global digital rights agency for indie labels (Merlin) and an indie label conglomerate (Beggars Group) decided to play nice with the big company’s streaming efforts.

Jason Gross is the social media manager for TheBlot Magazine

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