This Just In: Taylor Swift Is Not The Savior Artists Need

Taylor-swift-style-apple-music-100592569-primary.idgeI'm going to do something crazy and generally not advised on the internet: I'm going to try to make a nuanced argument that cannot be summarized just in the title alone. I fully expect that some will not read through the details, but please, just ignore them in the comments and try to focus on the full argument presented here. 

By Mike Masnick from the Tech Dirt Blog

Let me start out this post by noting a key thing: from the beginning, it was stupid that Apple had negotiated a deal with record labels in which copyright holders would not be compensated with royalties for the three-month "trial period" of Apple's new streaming music program. It clearly should have agreed to pay the royalties, and it was a really short-sighted move to push for a deal without royalties. It was always going to come back to haunt the company. Second, while I know some people like to attack Swift for a variety of reasons, I actually think she's an incredibly savvy music person, who has built a tremendously successful career, often by maintaining control on her own and not giving it up to the major labels. That's fantastic. But all of that doesn't mean I think what happened this weekend was a good thing (remember: nuanced argument, please read on). 

Of course, as you've probably heard, on Sunday, pop star Taylor Swift wrote an "open letter" to Apple on her Tumblr blog about how ridiculous this was, and how she wouldn't allow her latest album to stream on the service because of this — even though she supports Apple's "no free tier" stance. There's a lot to comment on about her piece but, no matter what, it was effective. Late on Sunday, Apple's Eddy Cue tweeted Apple's capitulation:

And… the internet went kind of wild. The fact that Taylor Swift wrote a blog post that made Apple — probably the richest and most powerful company in the world — back down within a day (on a weekend, no less), does have a sort of populist appeal to it. People started jokingly suggesting that Swift should weigh in on politicsthe Middle East and much, much more

Thought pieces were written by-the-dozen about how Swift is the "most powerful woman/person in music/tech." No, really:

And that's just the first ones I found in a quick Google search. There are more. 

But here's the problem with all of this: it's hogwash, meaningless blather that doesn't change a thing and will have no lasting impact. If anything, the lasting impact may be negative, not positive for artists. And, remember, I actually agree with the overall point that Apple's original decision was the wrong one, and think the company made the right decision to reverse course. 

But there are three big problems with the rush to celebrate Swift as the new savior of the music industry over this. First her arguments for why are misleading and not very helpful. Second the overall impact of this move will be minimal to musicians (and other creative types). Third, it will give a false sense of hope to those who rely on obsolete business models, rather than innovating. 

Let's break down all three. First: her arguments are kind of useless. Here's the key one, which got lots of people excited:

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.

It's very touching. And it's almost entirely hogwash for a variety of reasons. First, if your album is a success, there are all sorts of ways to make money beyond the royalties from Apple Music's streaming service. Swift herself kind of admits this in her first sentence in which she notes that she makes a ton of money playing live shows. And why does she make that much money live? Well, as Tom Conrad rightly points out, her career was built on terrestrial radio play — which is a free service (the kind that Swift has attacked Spotify over) and which doesn't pay the performers anything at all in the US. You can (and many do!) argue that the law in the US should change on this, but it's the way things are today, and Swift is living proof that being a part of a free service that doesn't pay performance royalties certainly doesn't mean that you end up suffering. In fact, itcan lead to an immensely successful and profitable career… like Swift's. 

But that brings us to the second problem with that paragraph, which is that for most musicians, this doesn't much matter anyway. That's because the industry's biggest secret, which it always tries to hide from these debates, is that the vast majority of musicians basically make absolutely nothing in royalties. This is due to a combination of factors, starting with the fact that if you're signed to a label, the label is likely keeping nearly everything you get from streaming. When Eddy Cue says "Apple will always make sure that artist [sic] are paid" he's lying. They may make sure thecopyright holder gets paid, but that's frequently not the artist. 

And, related to this, is the other dirty secret: most musicians don't have a big enough fanbase to generate enough revenue. Most musicians don't make a living, period. That has always been the case. The supporters of the old system like to try to slide this fact under the rug and they do some creative counting, where they only look at the stats of those who have made careers out of music, and they leave out the vast majority who fail. The vast, vast, vast majority of musicians don't make a living, because the music business is tough. It's tough to get attention. It's tough to make good music. It's tough to make money. Apple paying for streaming really only addresses a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of that last one. No musician is going to make it or not based on getting paid in this three-month trial. If they're getting enough plays to matter, then they have other ways to make revenue.

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.

Three months is a long time to go unpaid. But not getting paid by Apple Music does not mean "going unpaid." It just means one small revenue stream is limited while it aims to get up to speed. And, again, Swift herself proves this via the fact that her songs play all the time on the radio — for free, but still helping her get paid. And, even though she can pull it down, she's left her streaming music on YouTube. Furthermore, as others pointed out, Swift herself is a bit of a hypocrite here. She puts ridiculous limits on photographers who are on assignment to photograph her shows, such that it often means they have to put in the work and not get paid — even as she gets to use their photographs forever. If she's really so concerned about creative types "going unpaid," shouldn't she be paying those photographers for their works? 

As for the second point above: the overall impact of this move will be minimal to musicians (and other creative types). As already discussed in point one, for most musicians, this isn't going to move the needle one way or the other. Any musician out there relying on the royalties from Apple Music to make or break their musical career has no musical career. Perhaps it's possible that there are one or two artists at the margin for whom this is helpful, but for the vast majority of artists, this isn't going to make a big difference at all. Additionally, while Apple has said that it will now pay during the trial period, it didn't actually say how much it will pay. Yes, for struggling artistsany revenue helps, but trust me, when the first royalty checks from Apple start coming in, I can guarantee there will be musicians complaining online about how little they get. Those stories always get coverage. They'll happen again. 

And, of course, for label-affiliated artists, much of it will go to the label anyway, and the artist won't see any of it. 

Finally, onto the third, and most concerning point: it will give a false sense of hope to those who rely on obsolete business models, rather than innovating. We're already seeing this in the reverence and adoration being showered on Swift for her blog post, despite its questionable premises — but more for its impact. And musicians are celebrating this, despite the fact it won't move the needle for them one way or the other. And that's really unfortunate, because here's another chance to do things right by focusing on business models that let them connect directly to fans and give them a reason to buy something. Demanding others pay you money is no substitute for convincing others to willingly pay. One is sustainable, one is not. 

But because of this "success," people will still cling to the false notion that the "solution" to content creators' failure to build their own successful business model is to demand that other successful companies give them money. And this goes way beyond music as well. Already, you see people like Jeremy Olshan, Marketwatch's Editor-in-Chief, saying that "journalism needs a Taylor Swift to save content from getting… devalued."

This is wrong on so many levels, but that's another post for another day. But this notion of "a savior" magically swooping in and reviving business models that aren't working any more, based on sheer will, is a myth. And it's a dangerous myth because it gets people focusing on that rather than implementing sustainable business models and creating great content. There is no savior for music. There is no savior for journalism. There is no savior for movies. No talk about "fairness" or "fair compensation" or "ethical compensation" is going to change fundamental economics. Most content creators fail out of making a career of it, and if you're going to succeed, praying for a savior, rather than taking steps to ensure a competent business model, isn't likely to be particularly productive. 

To conclude (with nuance baked in): So, again, despite all of this, I think Apple made the wrong move initially, and the right move on Sunday night. However, Taylor Swift's reasoning was silly (even if I think she's a great success story who has built up a tremendous career without ceding much control), and the impact of all this will be basically nil for almost every single artist. But, worst of all, this whole episode reinforces this savior concept, and the false belief that because some companies are successful, while some content creators are not, a savior should just demand "fair compensation" and money will magically rain down upon the creative class. It doesn't work that way. It's never worked that way. And nothing in what happened over the weekend with Swift will change that. If anything, it only serves to distract people from focusing on the business models that do work.

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  1. You might want to clarify here that a performer DOES get paid radio royalties from terrestrial radio if that person has been credited as the songwriter for the song being played on terrestrial radio. I personally have no issues with only the songwriter getting compensated via radio royalties.

  2. Comparing “terrestrial radio play” to streaming services is apples and oranges.
    One can consistently be for terrestrial radio play and against streaming services.
    Terrestrial radio play is not on-demand or user-playlisted, so it serves as promotion for the end-goal, which is for the listener to go out and pay for the music by buying it. Streaming services, on the other hand, act as the end goal themselves; they create no incentive to buy the music. So the streaming services themselves must provide the income which otherwise would have come from sales.

  3. As Pranav pointed out, also, of course radio in the US does pay writers, but fails to pay performers and master owners. This clearly should be rectified and brought in line with the rest of the world.
    Furthermore, the US is not the only radio market: Even a US-based performer can make performer income and master-rights royalty income on the immense international market. As it should be.
    The US, as is often the case, lags behind when it comes to respect for the rights of workers.

  4. “Demanding others pay you money is no substitute for convincing others to willingly pay. One is sustainable, one is not.”
    Right. The first is sustainable, the second is not.
    This is not a charity, but a business, in which sellers and creators should be able to set a price on their goods. There is nothing unreasonable about the “demand” that others pay if they use your project, any more than the “demand” that a consumer has to pay for the groceries before walking out of the supermarket.
    There is clearly a “demand” for music, by listeners and various corporations; creators and rights-holders are right to “demand” payment in exchange for it. This is how the market should work.

  5. As I agree that Taylor Swift is certainly not the music industry saviour, at most, her voice was the straw that broke the camel’s back; I must take objection with certain points in this article.
    Although having your songs play on US radio may not be very lucrative, other countries’ radio do pay royalties. In Canada, for example, if you play regularly on the radio, that can be lucrative (it can mean tens of thousands of dollars a year). And Taylor Swift is… Canadian. Add to that all the other countries where her music is played. That by itself is probably enough for her to earn a more than decent living. The money she doesn’t earn in US radio can be written off as promotion. And that’s tax deductible.
    And the whole comparison between radio and streaming doesn’t work either. Radio selects songs. If you don’t want to listen, you have to get up and change the channel. Most people don’t want to do that, so the song keeps playing. Most songs need to be heard many times before being liked. This is how radio makes hits. On a streaming service, even if there is a discovery option, if you don’t like the first 10 seconds, just press a button and it’s gone; no discovery. On top of that, radio filters from the available pool of music. There are so many “artists” out there that should be spending their time refining their art rather than producing third and fourth rate music, that if your streaming discovery system doesn’t filter, there is very little chance that anyone unknown will get any attention. Radio and streaming are two completely separate animals that have nothing in common.
    I work at an Indie label, so where you say that labels keep most of streaming earnings is so far from reality as to be totally absurd. Labels barely make anything from streaming (which is why most Indie labels are opposed to streaming or they support it as a means of promotion only). The bulk of the reported income goes to distributors and aggregators; that’s not the label unless you are with a major label that is also the distributor.
    And the reported streaming numbers are also absurd. An artist with a greatest hits package and a live album (both containing essentially the same songs) will have 15-75 thousand streams per song in a given month, except for one or two songs (generally the most popular songs) that will have exactly 0 (zero) streams that same month on either album. Yeah, right.
    Artists never asked Apple to start a streaming service. Apple didn’t do it for the benefit of artists; they did for their own bottom line. So why should artists foot the bill? You may argue that in the long term artists will profit from this. But if you open a restaurant and start giving out free hotdogs to promote it, I can guarantee you that your suppliers will not give you their food for free.

  6. “Swift herself kind of admits this in her first sentence in which she notes that she makes a ton of money playing live shows. And why does she make that much money live?… her career was built on terrestrial radio play — which is a free service (the kind that Swift has attacked Spotify over) and which doesn’t pay the performers anything at all in the US.”
    fyi: historically, terrestrial radio increased the sale of physical product. Free streaming and illegal downloading has devastated such sales. Terrestrial radio distributes an imperfect, non-interactive analogue copy of recordings. Digital streaming IS the recording.
    You don’t have to be Einstein to understand that people don’t pay for what they can readily get for free.
    To create an equivalency between these two forms by referring to both as “free services” is pure jive. Swift isn’t hypocritical: you’re unaware of the facts.
    “But that brings us to the second problem with…[Swift’s] paragraph, which is that for most musicians, this doesn’t much matter anyway. That’s because the industry’s biggest secret, which it always tries to hide from these debates, is that the vast majority of musicians basically make absolutely nothing in royalties.”
    Oh really? Is that a fact? Bet you learned that from Steve Albini’s 1992 “The Problem With Music”, an article which, in its rush to demonize the major labels (Albini preferred indies) somehow forgot to mention publishing royalties, which come to about a dollar a record, payable BEFORE re-coupment, and are a major source of revenue for bands which write their own material, and the ONLY source of revenue for songwriters and composers. But musicians get most of that revenue from selling physical records or downloads, kinda hard to do if their music (and/or everyone else’s) is available for free on pirate sites, and YouTube (thanks to its special US govt approved protection from liability for infringement). And then the legal streaming services, which are supposed to ‘solve the problem of piracy’, come along and further degrade the value of music with free tiers? And you take the time to write against an artist who has twice risked placing herself in the crosshairs of the publicity departments of the largest corporations of the world to oppose this? nice.
    And btw: who exactly are YOU to tell artists which parts of our income ‘don’t matter’? Bet if I stuck a 9mm in your face and relieved you of a thousand bucks or so, you’d get all upset, even if it only amounted to 2% of your annual income. Bet you’d even complain if it was a few hundred. Jeez, what a whiner! Well, we (collectively) are out over 7 billion a year.
    “This is due to a combination of factors, starting with the fact that if you’re signed to a label, the label is likely keeping <

    Mr. Ribot is correct and this is Big Tech apologia on every level ~ so, you feel Apple “made the wrong move initially” in declaring they would not be paying artists for streaming content? Why? If you’re so on board with new business models and modernity and “fundamental economics” why wouldn’t you applaud Apple, which would definitely have gotten away with it had Taylor Swift or someone similarly powerful NOT said anything about it?
    The saviors for journalism, movies and music are the creators of that content who are willing to fight for sustainable and, yes, FAIR compensation for the fruits of their labors just as workers have done for millennia. And gosh, that includes Taylor Swift, who spoke out against this despite it probably not affecting her take-home pay much, if at all, and opening her up for public derision and the ire of powerful corporations.
    Capital will always try to maximize profit over and above concern for the needs of labor. Millions of musicians, regardless of whether or not you personally find their product worth your time and money, are providing the means for Apple/Spotify/Google-YouTube to rake in billions. We believe we deserve some of that money as compensation, yes, just as the hot dog vendor pays the supplier for hot dogs even if he’s giving them away as a promotion. Isn’t that “fundamental economics”? Otherwise, it’s called stealing. Why are we expected to adjust to this trend by Big Tech to just not pay or pay us negligibly by shrugging it off as just the new way of things and then finding some other way to make up for what they’re not paying us when its really about, as usual, corporations trying to get away with keeping all the profits for themselves?
    Content Creators Coalition is making strides every day to advance the cause of working musicians, please join us! http://www.c3action.org

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