Taylor Swift Is Not The Savior Artists Need
from the the-feel-good-story-that-isn't dept
Let me start out this post by noting a key thing: from the beginning, it was stupid that Apple had negotiated a deal with record labels in which copyright holders would not be compensated with royalties for the three-month "trial period" of Apple's new streaming music program. It clearly should have agreed to pay the royalties, and it was a really short-sighted move to push for a deal without royalties. It was always going to come back to haunt the company. Second, while I know some people like to attack Swift for a variety of reasons, I actually think she's an incredibly savvy music person, who has built a tremendously successful career, often by maintaining control on her own and not giving it up to the major labels. That's fantastic. But all of that doesn't mean I think what happened this weekend was a good thing (remember: nuanced argument, please read on).
Of course, as you've probably heard, on Sunday, pop star Taylor Swift wrote an "open letter" to Apple on her Tumblr blog about how ridiculous this was, and how she wouldn't allow her latest album to stream on the service because of this -- even though she supports Apple's "no free tier" stance. There's a lot to comment on about her piece but, no matter what, it was effective. Late on Sunday, Apple's Eddy Cue tweeted Apple's capitulation:
Thought pieces were written by-the-dozen about how Swift is the "most powerful woman/person in music/tech." No, really:
- The Guardian: Apple royalties U-turn: is Taylor Swift the most powerful woman in music?
- Entrepreneur: Why Taylor Swift Is Now the Most Powerful Person in Tech
- The Atlantic: Taylor Swift Almighty: Is she the most powerful person in music?
- Fuse: Is Taylor Swift The Most Powerful Person In Music?
- NY Times: With a Tap of Taylor Swift’s Fingers, Apple Retreated (which includes "most powerful person in the music industry" quote).
- Malaymail: How Taylor Swift became the most powerful woman in music
- BGR: My Jaw Dropped When I Realized How Powerful Taylor Swift is
But here's the problem with all of this: it's hogwash, meaningless blather that doesn't change a thing and will have no lasting impact. If anything, the lasting impact may be negative, not positive for artists. And, remember, I actually agree with the overall point that Apple's original decision was the wrong one, and think the company made the right decision to reverse course.
But there are three big problems with the rush to celebrate Swift as the new savior of the music industry over this. First her arguments for why are misleading and not very helpful. Second the overall impact of this move will be minimal to musicians (and other creative types). Third, it will give a false sense of hope to those who rely on obsolete business models, rather than innovating.
Let's break down all three. First: her arguments are kind of useless. Here's the key one, which got lots of people excited:
This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field…but will not get paid for a quarter of a year’s worth of plays on his or her songs.It's very touching. And it's almost entirely hogwash for a variety of reasons. First, if your album is a success, there are all sorts of ways to make money beyond the royalties from Apple Music's streaming service. Swift herself kind of admits this in her first sentence in which she notes that she makes a ton of money playing live shows. And why does she make that much money live? Well, as Tom Conrad rightly points out, her career was built on terrestrial radio play -- which is a free service (the kind that Swift has attacked Spotify over) and which doesn't pay the performers anything at all in the US. You can (and many do!) argue that the law in the US should change on this, but it's the way things are today, and Swift is living proof that being a part of a free service that doesn't pay performance royalties certainly doesn't mean that you end up suffering. In fact, it can lead to an immensely successful and profitable career... like Swift's.
But that brings us to the second problem with that paragraph, which is that for most musicians, this doesn't much matter anyway. That's because the industry's biggest secret, which it always tries to hide from these debates, is that the vast majority of musicians basically make absolutely nothing in royalties. This is due to a combination of factors, starting with the fact that if you're signed to a label, the label is likely keeping nearly everything you get from streaming. When Eddy Cue says "Apple will always make sure that artist [sic] are paid" he's lying. They may make sure the copyright holder gets paid, but that's frequently not the artist.
And, related to this, is the other dirty secret: most musicians don't have a big enough fanbase to generate enough revenue. Most musicians don't make a living, period. That has always been the case. The supporters of the old system like to try to slide this fact under the rug and they do some creative counting, where they only look at the stats of those who have made careers out of music, and they leave out the vast majority who fail. The vast, vast, vast majority of musicians don't make a living, because the music business is tough. It's tough to get attention. It's tough to make good music. It's tough to make money. Apple paying for streaming really only addresses a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of that last one. No musician is going to make it or not based on getting paid in this three-month trial. If they're getting enough plays to matter, then they have other ways to make revenue.
Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing. I say this with love, reverence, and admiration for everything else Apple has done. I hope that soon I can join them in the progression towards a streaming model that seems fair to those who create this music. I think this could be the platform that gets it right.Three months is a long time to go unpaid. But not getting paid by Apple Music does not mean "going unpaid." It just means one small revenue stream is limited while it aims to get up to speed. And, again, Swift herself proves this via the fact that her songs play all the time on the radio — for free, but still helping her get paid. And, even though she can pull it down, she's left her streaming music on YouTube. Furthermore, as others pointed out, Swift herself is a bit of a hypocrite here. She puts ridiculous limits on photographers who are on assignment to photograph her shows, such that it often means they have to put in the work and not get paid -- even as she gets to use their photographs forever. If she's really so concerned about creative types "going unpaid," shouldn't she be paying those photographers for their works?
As for the second point above: the overall impact of this move will be minimal to musicians (and other creative types). As already discussed in point one, for most musicians, this isn't going to move the needle one way or the other. Any musician out there relying on the royalties from Apple Music to make or break their musical career has no musical career. Perhaps it's possible that there are one or two artists at the margin for whom this is helpful, but for the vast majority of artists, this isn't going to make a big difference at all. Additionally, while Apple has said that it will now pay during the trial period, it didn't actually say how much it will pay. Yes, for struggling artists any revenue helps, but trust me, when the first royalty checks from Apple start coming in, I can guarantee there will be musicians complaining online about how little they get. Those stories always get coverage. They'll happen again.
And, of course, for label-affiliated artists, much of it will go to the label anyway, and the artist won't see any of it.
Finally, onto the third, and most concerning point: it will give a false sense of hope to those who rely on obsolete business models, rather than innovating. We're already seeing this in the reverence and adoration being showered on Swift for her blog post, despite its questionable premises -- but more for its impact. And musicians are celebrating this, despite the fact it won't move the needle for them one way or the other. And that's really unfortunate, because here's another chance to do things right by focusing on business models that let them connect directly to fans and give them a reason to buy something. Demanding others pay you money is no substitute for convincing others to willingly pay. One is sustainable, one is not.
But because of this "success," people will still cling to the false notion that the "solution" to content creators' failure to build their own successful business model is to demand that other successful companies give them money. And this goes way beyond music as well. Already, you see people like Jeremy Olshan, Marketwatch's Editor-in-Chief, saying that "journalism needs a Taylor Swift to save content from getting... devalued."
To conclude (with nuance baked in): So, again, despite all of this, I think Apple made the wrong move initially, and the right move on Sunday night. However, Taylor Swift's reasoning was silly (even if I think she's a great success story who has built up a tremendous career without ceding much control), and the impact of all this will be basically nil for almost every single artist. But, worst of all, this whole episode reinforces this savior concept, and the false belief that because some companies are successful, while some content creators are not, a savior should just demand "fair compensation" and money will magically rain down upon the creative class. It doesn't work that way. It's never worked that way. And nothing in what happened over the weekend with Swift will change that. If anything, it only serves to distract people from focusing on the business models that do work.