With Taylor Swift’s cleanup at the Grammys this year and attention over her misleading “victory” over Apple—and her subsequent partnership with the company—having waned (if not faded) over the last half year, it seems to be the appropriate time now to dissect what the fuck really happened back in July of last summer. Prior to the past few months when things seemed to have boiled down to a low simmer (focused mostly on SoundCloud and Spotify), the music news arena was blowing up over Taylor Swift’s push-back against Apple. Her open letter criticizing Apple, and subsequent statement that she would be boycotting the new music service—as she had done with Spotify—made it easy for the media to paint her as a martyr for “artists’ rights.” But that’s not the whole story. Not nearly.
When Apple announced early in June of 2015 that its new music service, aptly titled Apple Music, would not be compensating artists with royalties during the first three months of a user’s free trial period, there was significant push-back before Swift even got her letter out the door. The announcement was panned by the general music community, as well as by both artists within the mainstream paradigm, and the broad base of independents. When Apple retracted the statement and replaced it with a “fine, we’ll pay artists for the three-month trial period,” artists felt that they had won a major victory against the tech giant. Many even felt that Swift spoke up for them and that they benefited from her desire to help the general music community. Here’s why that’s wrong.
A Misleading “Victory”
Numerous sources reported on Apple’s recanting and Swift’s “victory,” from TechCrunch to Forbes to Mashable. But it wasn’t that at all. The retraction by Apple was telling of a much larger trend at play (and frankly, a much larger problem for independent artists which they should be focusing on). Swift made the same stink that she did when she “broke up” with Spotify, drawing on arguments like “artists shouldn’t give anything away for free” and her favorite “art needs to be rare to be valuable.” Soon after, Apple caved and said artists would be paid, and everything ended happily ever after.
While I wholeheartedly agree with Swift that artists shouldn’t have to give away their music for free if they don’t want to (as opposed to Swift’s catch-all “no free music ever/free music devalues your art” blah blah blah), I don’t think her motives are as angelic and altruistic as they might initially appear. People should be asking why exactly Swift made such a big fuss over this. Why? Because it really cuts into her bottom line. A bottom line that many of the independents she somewhat claims to “speak for” don’t have. Their economics are a very different reality from hers. Swift lives in a completely different universe, and no, as Matt Atkins wrote in a great Medium post , she is not an “independent artist.” Her signing to Big Machine Records makes her seem more independent than she really is; make sure you remember that she owns a huge stake in Big Machine, and that it’s distributed by Universal Music Group. So no, Swift doesn’t see it from the same perspective as that of an indie band in the garage in Ohio just trying to scrape by.
If an Independent Tried to Strong-arm Apple…
This doesn’t make Swift a bad person; it simply makes her human in looking out for her own best interests. At the time, that aligned with the best interests of the general music community. But people should not confuse happenstance with correlation.
Swift was able to strong-arm Apple into changing its position on paying royalties for the free trial period, and I commend her for that. But I can pretty much offer a dead guarantee that if it had been an independent artist who took to Twitter to complain (and many did, mind you) or write to Apple, nothing would happen. I’m not even sure they would receive a response email addressing their grievances. The fact that their position changed as a result of Swift’s vocal stance was a sheer coincidental benefit for the independent music community.
Artists who are not on Swift’s level (that is to say, most artists in the world) should be asking what could and would happen if and when their best interests don’t line up with hers. (Never mind the fact that Apple completely screwed up an independent artist’s entire catalogue upon Apple Music’s release). The moniker of Swift as “the Apple-Slayer” was nice and poetic, but all the more misleading. It painted Swift as the David to Apple’s Goliath, but that’s on a whole incorrect. Swift is just as much a Goliath as Apple is, and that’s precisely the reason that Apple caved to her in the first place. Had she been the David-level artist she parades around as (and which most independents actually are), she most likely would have been roundly ignored, as most independents usually are. When Apple caved, it was a good week for all artists. But what happens when Swift decides that what’s best for her is to choke the radio market and keep out other artists who might be stepping on her musical toes? I can’t imagine that she wants to give up any of her power.
It’s All About the Power
And that’s exactly what it’s about: the power. Swift has the power to turn heads and make things happen the way she wants. But that could be very bad for other up-and-coming artists. Swift, ironically, has become yet another gatekeeper, akin to the ones she so readily criticizes. She’s signed to an “independent” label which is distributed by one of the Big Three labels (Universal), and she has the clout to mobilize legions of fans (when she’s not suing them, I suppose).
But what about her whole “anti-free” mentality? That’s directly at odds with a lot of the thinking within the independent music community, where artists increasingly see their music as a means of marketing, rather than an end commodity for sale. What happens when push comes to shove and she’s on the other side of the fence from the much broader—but much more unknown—independent music community? She will still have the power to push her agenda, and they will simply be more obstacles in her way.
The reality is that no artist, of any caliber or genre, should have the power to dictate changes like that. At the time, it worked out for the better, but next time will be another story.
All of this made the announcement of Swift’s subsequent partnership with Apple more confusing, and in some ways, harder to swallow. After all the stones that were thrown, and all the press that was garnered (a calculated effort, I’m sure), the end result was somewhat anticlimactic. We were all ready for a super showdown of a major mainstream artist (yes, that’s what she is, live with reality) bucking the system and sending a message for musicians everywhere. What we got was…well…predictable.
As soon as Apple caved, so did Swift. She caved to using the service when it turned out that her open letter would get her exactly what she wanted. That sounds logical, except for the fact that she pretty much abandoned the “Apple-Slayer” independent gauntlet when she stopped focusing on how the new service would be for non-mainstream artists, and just said “ok.” In so few words, it seems that Swift was content to “take the money and run,” so to speak. Her victory really wasn’t a victory for anyone who wasn’t seeing massive streaming or airplay already anyway, so let’s not treat it as one.
A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words
Perhaps the most glaring result of Swift’s flirtatious battle with Apple, though, was the fallout over her own contracts. In the wake of her open letter, other types of creatives called her on her own hypocrisy, though this time, they weren’t musical artists: they were photographers. In an open letter of his own, professional photographer Jason Sheldon shined a light on Swift’s own hypocrisy in her company’s contracts with photographers at her shows. According to the Washington Post:
Swift’s management company, Firefly Entertainment, demands that photographers who shoot Swift’s concerts to do so on a “one-time-use” only basis and relinquish any rights to republish or sell their photos. Additionally, the contract states that Firefly has the “perpetual, worldwide right to use” the very same photographs in just about any way it sees fit, without compensating the photographer for their usage.
Wow, let’s just take a moment to let that sink in. Swift—the great “Apple-Slayer” and champion for artists’ rights and fair compensation—didn’t (doesn’t?) even feel that those same dynamics should apply when she’s the one who has to pay royalties. That’s pretty staggering.
As she wrote in her own Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Considering just how much Swift seems to think that “valuable art should not be free,” it’s fairly amazing that she doesn’t go out of her way to create the best working opportunities for other creatives. In fact, the only thing it does is make her an undeniable hypocrite. If she wants to sit on top of the mainstream and act in a holier-than-thou way, that’s fine, but she should at least be honest about it. She shouldn’t be parading around as some “champion for the independent artist” when clearly her actions say otherwise. It essentially negates everything she’s done to “bring attention to artists’ rights.”
Perhaps the most upsetting thing of all is that many were lulled into thinking that Swift is something that she’s not, including other artists, and independents in particular. This was akin to telling someone that they now had a spokesperson they could trust and count on to speak up louder than they could for their general rights, only to find out that person wasn’t nearly as altruistic as they initially appeared. Most frustratingly, though, it has the power to negate arguments made by others who really are looking to campaign for artists’ rights. Swift’s hypocrisy has the power to undermine other voices (ones who might not be as loud as hers), and to take the focus off the matters that need to be addressed.
(Legal) Iceberg Ahead
Even as the fallout from the Apple-Swift roiling seems to have unfolded months ago, so too was there something else on the horizon for Apple which spelled a different kind of trouble: monopoly. As the FTC subsequently sent out subpoenas to competing music services following its initial probe of Apple Music, attention began to focus again on the tech giant in a way that is less than flattering. The “war” which Spotify started last July with Apple seemed to spread to other areas of the collective music business conscience. Apple Music may not have been “doomed” as Tidal was (or seemed to be) upon its initial release, but it does have new things to take care of that other services don’t need to account for.
Perhaps the irony of the whole situation is that Apple’s legal issues regarding Apple Music really only surfaced after the service was announced and released. Inasmuch as Apple would like to pretend that it has enough money to push its way through to any opinion and finding that would benefit it, it still must contend with U.S. legal code, not to mention its own Terms of Service. Power and money notwithstanding, the outcome of the said legal issues won’t resolve super quickly.
In the End
In the end, the whole Apple-Swift saga that encompassed the end of last summer really wasn’t what people reported it to be. It won’t (and hasn’t) really resulted in a super-massive victory for independents beyond some news attention, and it actually served to highlight some dirty little secrets in Swift’s own business affairs. I don’t know if the saga is concluding or just in a lull itself, but I don’t think this “picture-royalty” thing is going to go away anytime soon. Now that the dam has broken, I bet we’re going to see many more creatives (photographers for sure) speaking up over the next year or so about their business experiences with Swift, and I don’t think they will all be positive.
As for Apple, it continues to chug ahead after the release of Apple Music, albeit in the shadow of the new FTC probes. Though the service boasts a few interesting features, few of them can really be described as “new” or “earthshaking.” While ex-BBC host and DJ Zane Lowe likely made U.K. listeners happy on the new Beats 1 radio program, for us in the States he was a somewhat irrelevant “exclusive” for Apple to tout (simply because most Americans didn’t know who he was). If Apple really wants to set itself apart in the long term (10+ years), it’s really going to need to do better than a few exclusive names. I suppose we’ll see, but for the time being, the Apple-Swift saga has left a sour taste in my mouth that won’t be going away any time soon.