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CMU Beef Of The Week #268: Taylor Swift v Spotify

By | Published on Friday 7 August 2015

Taylor Swift

Hey look, we’re back here again. Turns out Taylor Swift still doesn’t much like Spotify. She has ‘bad blood’ with the streaming service, as 86% of the reports on this new beef noted this week. The topic came up in an interview with Vanity Fair, in which she was asked about the open letter/blog post she wrote to Apple earlier this year, decrying its planned policy to pay no royalties to rightsholders during Apple Music’s three month free trial.

“I wrote the letter at around 4am”, Swift explained. “The contracts had just gone out to my friends, and one of them sent me a screenshot of one of them. I read the term ‘0% compensation to rightsholders’. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I’ll write a song and I can’t sleep until I finish it, and it was like that with the letter”.

Still, she said, she was worried that she would be criticised for writing the missive, and that “people would say, ‘Why won’t she shut up about this?'” after the article she wrote for the Wall Street Journal last year arguing that music should not be available for free.

“My fears were that I would be looked at as someone who just whines and rants about this thing that no one else is really ranting about”, she added. Which possibly shows a lack of awareness about the wider debate in the artist community over streaming royalties, given that the main reason her letter was so well received was because so many other people were already ranting about Apple’s freebie plans.

The apparent result of the letter, of course, was that Apple took on board Swift’s complaint and almost instantly did a U-turn on its policy on free trial royalties. I still think it more likely that Apple was already planning to do this – thanks to the efforts of many in the indie music sector behind the scenes – but tagging it to Swift’s letter provided the perfect PR angle.

After all, the dispute was over a fairly standard clause in digital music service contracts – except that Apple’s free trial was three times longer than the norm – nevertheless Apple possibly didn’t expect quite the level of controversy it got, but at the same time, with such deep pockets, could afford to quickly change its mind once the indie community hit out.

People less cynical than me might say that a big name artist clearly laying out their concerns made it apparent to Apple that this wasn’t just the corporate music industry being greedy, and was something that required attention.

That’s certainly how Swift seems to see it, telling Vanity Fair: “Apple treated me like I was a voice of a creative community that they actually cared about. And I found it really ironic that the multi-billion dollar company reacted to criticism with humility, while the start-up with no cashflow reacted to criticism like a corporate machine”.

That “start-up with no cashflow”, of course, is Spotify. Which, when she pulled her entire catalogue from its service last year, just said, ‘OK, that’s your choice, but if you want to come back that would be great’.

It’s not really fair to compare the two services like-for-like though. Spotify is a standalone business – what it’s selling is Spotify. Swift wanted to be able to pull her music from its freemium subscription level, but Spotify felt that allowing artists to pick and choose which users their music was available to would be detrimental to its business model, of having a great freemium platform via which to upsell premium.

Apple Music, on the other hand, is a supplementary product designed to make its hardware more attractive. The product is not Apple Music, it’s iPhones. If Apple can convince people to sign up for its streaming service, build a load of playlists, and lock themselves into it as their default music player, then they’re less likely to buy an Android phone when they’re next due an upgrade (even once Apple Music arrives on Android, the iOS experience is likely to be better). So it’s in Apple’s interest to throw all the bells and whistles it can at it.

And while backtracking on the free trial royalty thing was expensive, think of the marketing benefits Apple got. “Hey, if you sign up for this artists are going to get paid, even though we’re not making any money from this right now!” Thanks multi-billion dollar company. “Hey, did you know we’re great mates with Taylor Swift and we have all of her music available for you?” Oh, that’s so cool. “And all this is already available at the touch of a button on your iPhone!” Great, now all my music is stored on Apple’s servers, along with my photos, ebooks and tickets, I’ll for sure stick around with you guys.

Speaking as someone sitting here writing this on a MacBook, with an iPhone and iPad in easy reach, I can comfortably say that, while I’m not an avid user of all the ways that Apple tries to lock me to its devices, I use enough of them routinely that the thought of switching to non-Apple products is a daunting and unappealing prospect. Therefore, to suggest that Apple wasn’t acting in anything like a corporate-minded manner when it apparently responded to Swift’s plea is a bit short-sighted.

Spotify may have been acting like a “corporate machine” too, but what it was protecting was fundamental to its existence. And while in her battle with Apple Swift was highlighting unfairness for artists less well off than her, in her battle with Spotify it was far more a case of two corporate machines going head-to-head. Taylor Swift, let’s not forget, is very much a business.

There may be problems with the “grand experiment” of streaming (as Swift once described it), and Spotify’s answers may not be the right ones, but Spotify also has a lot more to lose than Apple does when it comes to making these choices. Which could be why it takes a bit more time to think about them.

Hey, in the interests of balance, why don’t we try to find an artist who isn’t so pro-Apple Music? Who could we possibly find to have a negative opinion about such a thing? Oh, of course, Noel Gallagher. “Apple Music, world radio, is that some sort of George Orwell shit going on?” he asked the Varvet International podcast. “Who’s so arrogant to say, ‘We now fucking own world radio’?”

It’s worth noting he didn’t seem to realise there was anything beyond the Beats 1 radio station on the Apple Music platform, which possibly highlights a communication problem for the tech firm. Or that Gallagher wilfully ignores such things. Or possibly both. He had at least glanced at the new service though: “It came up on my phone, so it’s there. What would I listen to? It’s not playing The Kinks. Unless there’s a genre that says ‘Noel Gallagher’s music selection’ then I’m not fucking interested in it”.

Yeah, The Kinks and your own music collection are definitely on there. Still, he did concede that streaming “is clearly the future”, but added that when it becomes the norm that music is available “for rent” then “that’s a sad day”.