Taylor Swift is Backing Herself Into a Corner - Above Avalon Premium Week in Review

Along with periodic Above Avalon posts accessible to everyone, I write 10-12 stories a week about Apple sent exclusively to Above Avalon members via a daily email. The following story was sent to members on June 22nd. For more information and to sign-up, visit the membership page.

Taylor Swift is Backing Herself Into a Corner

Taylor Swift was able to capture much of the Sunday news cycle with a well-circulated 
Tumblr post with a passive aggressive "To Apple, Love Taylor" title. The seven paragraphs that made up the post can be summed up in three sentences:

"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."

Eddy Cue responded within 17 hours saying via Twitter that Apple had changed its mind and will pay artists during the free trial period. Apparently, Apple will pay rights holders on per-stream basis, the details of which were not disclosed [Apple will pay 0.2 cents for each song streamed]. It would seem the rate will be less than the regular rate once the trial period ends. Regardless, the change in Apple's stance occurred very quickly. Does this mean everything is okay? Not quite.

Before I go any further, I think it's important to note that Taylor Swift knows exactly what she is doing. Beginning with her WSJ op-ed last year and her recent spat with Spotify where she removed her entire music catalog from the music streaming service, Swift has fully embraced the message that music needs to be valued appropriately. Not only does such positioning likely hold true to her beliefs, but it serves her well from a business sense.

Taylor Swift is arguably the biggest music act going today. She is one of the few that can sell out venues each night for months across the world. She has spent years developing her fan base and connects with them extremely well. Simply put, she can afford to take these kind of hard stances and use her music as a bargaining chip.  

You will quickly discover that you can't go far talking about music without discussing record labels and the complicated structure where everything is done in such a way as to position the dollar as the ultimate goal. In many ways, Taylor Swift transcends all of this talk because of the power she holds. This means that any discussion involving Taylor Swift is often much more ideological than practical as we can ignore the record label. 

At the end of the day, this Taylor Swift vs. Apple battle wasn't even about Apple. It's about valuing music. Swift previously battled Spotify. Yesterday, she called out Apple. Tomorrow, she will call out someone else. Apple is simply a symbol of what Swift is fighting for: raising awareness that the music industry is selling an art form that should be valued accordingly. 

Swift's primary argument against Apple's 3 month tier was that such a feature does not value music appropriately. If you are a music artist and you release a new album from July to September, you would have received $0 from Apple Music and the 10s of millions of people trying the service out. While simplistic in thought, basically the entire music industry would have received $0 from Apple for those three months. When you say it like that, it is hard not to agree with Swift's argument, and I suspect that is why Apple changed its tune, deciding to pay artists during the trial period. Swift wasn't the only one to raise this issue in recent days, so it is possible that Apple was at least thinking about this topic for a few days and Swift was the final straw. 

Even though Swift won this latest battle (Apple probably will face no long-term negative implications from this though), I still think Swift's long-term positioning in terms of valuing music is problematic. Swift is combining short-term goals with long-term ambitions. She is upset with any service or feature that doesn't value music correctly. She raises very valid (and convincing) arguments. However, when looking at the long-term, Swift is likely backing herself into a corner.

One theme that has developed in the music industry over the past decades, especially the last 10-15 years, is that technology is a formidable force. The music industry has not been able to figure out how to find sustainability with music streaming. There is pain in the streets. Taylor Swift, and a handful of other actors, are using what essentially boils down to aggressive negotiation tactics to force change (i.e. getting people to pay for music). In the near-term, Swift's exposure and power will increase. Her fans will like her even more. And she may very well win many battles (as she did vs. Apple).

However, look at what happened with Swift's battle with Spotify. The music streaming service's momentum in terms of user growth (the most important metric for Spotify) has shown no signs of slowing down after Swift pulled her music collection. In fact, one can argue Spotify gained exposure following Swift's very public battle with its free streaming tier. Here is where I think Swift will find some trouble. She will not be able to control technology. Even though she is the most popular music artist in the world today, that is not enough to shift what will be inevitable in terms of music and technology. She is trying to get everyone to play nicely, but no one person holds enough power to keep everyone in line. A stronger Spotify, including a more popular free streaming option, would seem to go against what Swift is advocating. 

Look at how Kid Rock turned out in his opposition to paid downloads on iTunes. Technology, and the world, passed him over. The same will happen with Swift if she doesn't change her tune (which I think she will) over time, concerning how music should ultimately be valued. 

Swift wants people to value music appropriately. Apple does too. Swift thinks the best way of doing that is to pay for music. I'm not sure Apple feels the same way long-term. Technology likely has other plans in mind (and I suspect Apple does too) in terms of how one can monetize music to ensure sustainability. Free music streaming isn't going away, regardless of how much Taylor Swift hates it.

In addition to the preceding story, Above Avalon members also received the following stories this past week:

  • Apple Stock Buyback Primer (seven chapters)
  • Apple's Cash Dilemma (Why Not Just Pay the Tax?) 
  • One Drawback of Holding $194 Billion of Cash
  • The Symbolism Behind the Gold iPhone
  • Google's Early Approach to Take On Apple Watch
  • Calculating Apple Watch Band Profit
  • Just Doing What's Right (Tim Cook and Eddy Cue edition)
  • Improving iOS 9 Adoption is High Priority at Apple

To read these stories (accessible via email) and receive future stories containing Apple analysis, sign-up at the membership page. A weekly option is also available containing all of the week's articles in one email delivered at the end of the week. Above Avalon is supported 100 percent by its members. Thank for your continued support.