Today Taylor Swift became the biggest name to publicly criticise Apple over the company’s plans for its new music streaming service. In an open letter published via her Tumblr page, titled ‘To Apple, Love Taylor’, Swift explained why she intends to withhold her latest album – 1989, released last October – from Apple Music.
Taylor Swift’s letter echoes concerns raised by independent musicians and independent music labels. Apple Music plans to launch offering would-be customers a free, three-month trial membership. For the duration of these three months, the artists whose music features on the service will receive no payment for their work. Swift wrote:
‘I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.
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.’
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There is plenty of reason to be dubious about commercial streaming services: they would seem to centralise the process of listening to music; attempt to guide listening habits under the pretence of curation by experts; and have received wide criticism for paying artists too little. On the other hand they offer a popular and relatively straightforward means by which artists can be paid something for their work.
With illicit downloads and the availability of music via YouTube serving to diminish record sales, artists face an increasing struggle to make ends meet. Those seeking to make a living in the business often find themselves forced into an endless, and potentially unhealthy and unproductive, cycle of touring. In some respects streaming services suggest a better future than the old dominance of terrestrial radio. Terrestrial radio stations in the United States pay royalties only to songwriters, not to recording artists.
Apple Music was announced at the company’s WWDC show in San Francisco earlier this month. The service is scheduled to launch in little over a week, on 30 June. It will compete directly against Spotify, the leading commercial streaming service in the music industry today, which currently boasts over 75 million registered users, of which 20 million are paying subscribers. Spotify features a catalogue of 30 million songs; radio stations organised by genre; and ‘Spotify Sessions’, live-recorded EPs, with a new session released every Tuesday.
By contrast Apple Music is set to offer as many as 37 million songs. Its radio offering will be headlined by a live, 24/7 radio station named Beats 1: fronted by former BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe; and featuring interviews and cultural segments alongside music.
Beyond this streamable content, Apple Music will allow users to integrate everything they have purchased and added to their iTunes library. This means if an artist is missing from Apple Music, customers will still be able to buy their work via iTunes, then listen through the streaming service. The Connect function promises to give fans direct engagement with their favourite artists – though it is unclear how this will replace or surpass the sort of interaction which is already made possible via Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and SoundCloud.
Commenting earlier in the week on Apple Music’s three-month trial period, the British record company Beggars Group – which owns or distributes independent labels including 4AD, Rough Trade, Matador, and XL Recordings – stated, ‘Whilst we understand the logic of their proposal and their aim to introduce a subscription-only service, we struggle to see why rights owners and artists should bear this aspect of Apple’s customer acquisition costs.’
AIM, the trade body for independent labels within the United Kingdom, argued ‘As a whole the independent sector is a powerful voice in the music industry but its individual parts, the smaller labels particularly, cannot withstand such a potentially catastrophic drop in revenue.’
Meanwhile A2IM, the American Association of Independent Music, warned its members, ‘Independent rights holders will receive no compensation for their content during Apple Music’s 90-day free trial period. It is surprising that Apple feels the need to give a free trial as Apple is a well-known entity […] We will keep everyone informed as new details emerge in the press. In the meantime, please do not feel rushed to sign Apple’s current offer.’
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Taylor Swift’s 1989 debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200, and sold 1.287 million copies in its first week. This was the highest sales week since 2002. 1989 went on to become the biggest selling album of 2014 in the United States, selling over 3.66 million copies. The album has produced four top-ten hits, with ‘Shake It Off’, ‘Blank Space’, and ‘Bad Blood’ all reaching number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
After writing an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal in July, entitled ‘The Future of Music Is a Love Story’, last November Swift pulled her catalogue from Spotify. At the time she explained, ‘I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music […] I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.’
In a similar vein, earlier this year Björk kept Vulnicura off Spotify. She said, ‘We’re all making it up as it goes, to be honest. I would like to say there’s some master plan going on, but there isn’t. But a few months ago I emailed my manager and said, “Guess what? This streaming thing just does not feel right. I don’t know why, but it just seems insane” […] To work on something for two or three years and then just, Oh, here it is for free. It’s not about the money; it’s about respect, you know? Respect for the craft and the amount of work you put into it.’
Edit: Less than 24 hours after Taylor Swift published her open letter, in the early hours of Monday morning, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue announced a change in policy. Across three tweets, Cue stated that Apple Music will now pay artists even during the streaming service’s free trial period; closing with the message, ‘We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists. Love, Apple’.
Cue later elaborated, ‘When I woke up this morning and I saw Taylor’s note that she had written, it really solidified that we needed to make a change’. Swift for her part responded via Twitter, ‘I am elated and relieved. Thank you for your words of support today. They listened to us.’
Apple Music previously stated that, in the long term, they would pay slightly above 70% of their subscription revenue to music rights owners. This would be a few percentage points higher than the industry standard, and would go to both songwriters and recording artists – although the amount ending up in an artist’s pocket would vary considerably depending on the details of their contract. Spotify is controversial because of its free offering; but the company at least argues that it still ends up paying owners around 70% of its total revenue.
Apple Music’s payout is a complex issue, especially since they will reportedly pay a much smaller fee for songs streamed via their radio service. It remains unclear how well the streaming model matches up to what artists currently receive courtesy of iTunes downloads.
Regardless, Cue has suggested that for the three-month duration of the trial period, Apple Music won’t pay music owners at the 70%-plus rate specified by their subscription plan. Instead, they will be paid on an as-yet-unspecified per-stream basis. When the trial period comes to a close, Apple Music will cost $9.99 per month for an individual subscription, and $14.99 per month for a family membership incorporating up to six people.