Taylor Swift Is Not The Savior Artists Need

from the the-feel-good-story-that-isn't dept

I'm going to do something crazy and generally not advised on the internet: I'm going to try to make a nuanced argument that cannot be summarized just in the title alone. I fully expect that some will not read through the details, but please, just ignore them in the comments and try to focus on the full argument presented here.

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:
And... the internet went kind of wild. The fact that Taylor Swift wrote a blog post that made Apple -- probably the richest and most powerful company in the world -- back down within a day (on a weekend, no less), does have a sort of populist appeal to it. People started jokingly suggesting that Swift should weigh in on politics, the Middle East and much, much more.

Thought pieces were written by-the-dozen about how Swift is the "most powerful woman/person in music/tech." No, really: And that's just the first ones I found in a quick Google search. There are more.

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."
This is wrong on so many levels, but that's another post for another day. But this notion of "a savior" magically swooping in and reviving business models that aren't working any more, based on sheer will, is a myth. And it's a dangerous myth because it gets people focusing on that rather than implementing sustainable business models and creating great content. There is no savior for music. There is no savior for journalism. There is no savior for movies. No talk about "fairness" or "fair compensation" or "ethical compensation" is going to change fundamental economics. Most content creators fail out of making a career of it, and if you're going to succeed, praying for a savior, rather than taking steps to ensure a competent business model, isn't likely to be particularly productive.

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.

Filed Under: apple music, business models, music, paying, streaming, taylor swift
Companies: apple


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  1. icon
    Leigh Beadon (profile), 24 Jun 2015 @ 7:08am

    Re: Most musicians don't make a living

    This is a comment I read somewhere else, on another blog, on a related topic, quite some time ago... I forget where, to be honest. But it's an excellent extension of the point you make here:

    "All the rhetoric about this subject continue to miss a key objective reality: that there are two separate supply/demand interactions at work here not one. It also misunderstands the real-world facts of one of those supply/demand interactions.

    One of them is the supply of artistic performance compared to the demand for it. Observing that the great majority of professional-caliber artists are paid very poorly we assume that this means that the demand curve (how much people will pay, or "how much our soecity values the arts") has been dropping. But this is factually incorrect. Both the Broadway and non-profit theater sectors nationally are vastly larger today in revenues than a generation or two ago; there are now nearly 200 salary-paying professional symphonies compared to fewer than 10 fifty years ago; annual tax-deductible contributions to arts organizations is today several times (after inflation) what it was in the 1970s; etc. Some perusal of American for the Arts annual statistical survey with an eye towards this particular question is eye-opening; the entire annual NEA budget isn't even a fraction of one percent of the nation's arts economy anymore. And that's without even considering the long-term boom of the broader "creative sector" such as the film and TV worlds.

    But wait: if the total amount of money in the arts sector (that demand curve) has been rising then why do so few artists earn a living wage? Because the supply curve (of artists) has been rising even faster. Check out the stats on annual graduations from music, theater and dance conservatories. The number of arts organizations keeps rising which means that the growing contributed-support pot gets divvied up more. The number of Americans reporting on their tax returns cash income as artists double in a single generation (1970 to 1990). As a society we finished eliminating social stigmas on the pursuit of a life as an artist -- there are Evangelical musical-theater camps now! -- and, it turns out, liberated perhaps more than anticipated.

    Also technology keeps tearing down barriers to entry, e.g. I just recorded, in a studio, an album with my band for a total cost that in real dollars wouldn't even have bought the snacks for a proper recording session in 1980 or 1960. Make something cheaper and cheaper to attempt and, it turns out, more and more people will put in the time and effort to attempt it. And some fraction of them will turn out to be genuinely good enough to pull it off.

    Basically no matter how fast the demand for artistic performance has grown and is growing, the supply of artists has grown more. And what is supply from this angle is demand from another: the demand for a life as an artist. We have fully liberated that demand: now, for the first time in the history of Western civilization, essentially every person who possesses the raw talent to potentially become a professional-caliber performing artists attempts to do so. That's a genie which won't go back into the bottle willingly: are you willing to subtract yourself from that pool? I'm sure not.

    Unless we're willing to put back up some of the barriers which had always artificially reduced the supply of professional-caliber artists [go back to viewing actresses and actors as just one step above prostitutes and pimps, get the aspiration to sing or dance for fame and fortune back off of our public airwaves, cut the number of conservatories back to 1950s levels, institute genuine hard artist guilds, etc], then this is the reality going forward. We're not as a society going to do any of those things, so the demand for life as an artist will keep rising faster than the demand for art. Or, put the other way, the supply of terrific and/or amazing artists will keep rising faster than the supply of the society's interest in them. Neither is actually falling or likely to anytime soon, but one is rising faster. That's a broad reality which all the well-meaning policy rhetoric in the world can't overcome."

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