Did Taylor Swift save the music industry?

The wisdom of @SwiftOnSecurity
The wisdom of @SwiftOnSecurity

Besides being one of the world’s most popular pop stars, Taylor Swift is usually recognised for her masterful use of social media. Her Instagram and Tumblr accounts are wildly popular, but are also textbook examples of how to use the Internet to communicate a carefully curated image. The savvy online presence has made Swift a powerful voice of the music industry.

Such power was made evident recently when she wrote an open letter to Apple decrying the fact that their new streaming service would be offered three months for free to users without paying musicians. In the missive, entitled “To Apple, Love Taylor”, she says:

” 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.”

Apple swiftly responded (see what I did there?) by announcing that they would be taking steps to pay artists during Apple Music’s trial period. This was met by the mainstream media with the over-the-top praise not seen since the days of Steve Jobs. A lot of the coverage has praised Swift’s response to the problem of streaming, while others credit her for single-handedly saving Apple Music, and maybe even the entire music industry.

But something kept nagging me about the above, and it is the fact that I couldn’t find a single reference to a pre-Swift announcement by Apple about whether the streaming service would not pay artists during the trial period. Apple Music was announced on June 8, and while the public notices specified that the service would be free for three months, there was little sign that musicians would not be paid any royalties. In fact, there was a lot of speculation after the announcement about whether musicians would be paid (listen to this discussion about that very same topic in the Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast).

The best information that I could find was a claim made by Andrew Heath of the industry group UK Music, who complained in an interview to The Telegraph that Apple Music would put independent labels out of business. This means that this was under negotiation, but no official announcement was made. In fact, Mr Heath’s statements make it clear that the music industry was not going to sign up to a free service at all.

So I find the timeline highly suspicious.

  • June 8: Announcement
  • June 9-20: negotiation with music industry
  • June 21: Taylor Swift’s letter.
  • June 21: Apple says they changed their mind.
  • June 30: Apple Music launches.

I just don’t buy that a company like Apple would change its mind about something so big within 24 hours of a public letter from a pop star, even one that has such power as Taylor Swift. The whole thing smells of a publicity stunt, one that worked in favour of both Apple and Swift. Apple ended up looking like it listens to musicians. Taylor Swift cemented her reputation as a powerful queen of social media.

So I’m going to dismiss the version of events that has a company which could buy an entire country bowing down to an online letter by a popular musician. My conspiracy theory is that Apple had indeed considered not paying artists initially, but there was too much resistance from the music industry. Apple Music needed to launch with a full range of artists if it was to compete with the established leader that is Spotify, so it made plans to pay artists. However, they saw the opportunity to get free publicity, and nothing sells better than Taylor Swift taking on the tech giant and winning. Both got the publicity they desired, and Apple Music was prominent in people’s minds once again.

But don’t listen to me, I think streaming is the work of the devil, I still like owning physical copies of music. I’m off to the 20th Century to listen to my vinyl, tapes and CDs.

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