Taylor Swift, Indies and the Cost of Streaming — Thinking about Apple Music’s Recent Reversal

Taylor Swift’s highly publicized tumblr post accomplished something that’s happened a few times in Apple’s history — she made the company change course.

You’ve probably heard about the Tweet storm by Apple’s Eddie Cue over the weekend, saying that the company will do the right thing when it comes to paying artists during Apple Music’s three month free trial — though this was something Apple should have done to begin.

Lost in the signal and the noise of Taylor vs. Apple is the fact that resentment by indie labels had been building about the rate structure of Apple Music. Swift’s post was the right nudge at the right time. (To be fair, others think the whole thing was a PR stunt to draw attention to the service and that its rate structure is slightly higher than other streaming services.)

Headlines like “Apple Music’s royalty-free trial period puts indie labels at risk“, “Apple Music Boycott – Should Indie Artists, Labels Stop Releasing New Music For Next 90 Days?” and “UK Indie Labels Say Apple Music Free Trial Could ‘Literally Put People Out of Business” made their way around the interwebs in the lead up to Swift’s post. The message was clear — the major labels could afford a hit in revenue for three months, but not a smaller company with tighter margins and less coming in each month. Some of the indies even accused Apple of cutting sweetheart deals with the majors at their expense.

I am an Apple fan. I’m a huge Apple fan. I’ve been accused of being a fanboy, and really, there’s no defense. However, what Apple is doing now with Apple Music, post Taylor Swift, is exactly what it should have done to begin with — pay the artists. This isn’t something that should be greeted with applause or praise, because it’s not like they’re dramatically raising the bar when it comes to streaming revenues (again, Apple’s payout is, at best, slightly higher than what other streaming services are paying now).

And that streaming bar could use some serious raising. In a Time piece from December 2013, artists like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and the Black Keys and Aimee Mann all talked about how little streaming makes them and how it cannibalizes the sales of their albums. Smaller artists are working with smaller margins in a landscape where downloading anything from a less-than-legal sources is only slightly more complicated than downloading legally — to call streaming negligible for these artists would be an overstatement.

Apple’s reversal is just maintaining the status quo, which is increasingly squeezing out smaller labels and the innovative performers that usually make up their stables. So if you feel the urge to think Apple’s doing musicians a favor, keep in mind that they really aren’t.

A music industry that counts on flat fees means that poor, struggling artists will be even more poor and will be struggling even more. By embracing this model, the danger is that the only kind of musical artist there will be is the mega-successful variety (like Swift and the ones seen at the Tidal debacle/love-in), and no one else. The future David Bowies, MC5s and Leonard Cohens will all be too busy driving for Uber and working for Starbucks to actually work on music and develop as a performer.

Hold your applause for a company that will pay artists what their streams are worth. Will it be Apple? Probably not. Will it happen at all? In all seriousness, most likely not.

Photo by Steve.N7/flickr.

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