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Taylor Swift vs Apple: nobody wins

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A heartwarming victory for the status quo

If there's one thing we know about Taylor Swift, it's that she wants to get paid.

The world's biggest-selling artist is not so much a musician as she is a full-body lifestyle experience. You can fill yourself with her Diet Coke and moisturize your skin with her lotions before stepping into her line of Keds and moving to New York, which has been waiting for you.

There isn't a single aspect of Swift's career as an artist that isn't diligently commercial; she's a force of nature, a constant tidal wave of art and business. It's awe-inspiring, even if staying brand-safe means that she might never be able to write a song about anything other than new relationships, ongoing relationships, and failed relationships, in an unending cycle.

So why did Apple think for one second that it could get away with not paying Taylor Swift?

We don't need to get into the depth of the details here; you know them. Apple Music pays higher royalties than competitors like Spotify because there's no free option; you have to pay $9.99 a month to use it. But to entice consumers into signing up, Apple's offering a three-month free trial, and artists like Swift weren't going to see any money during those three months. Last week Adele's label said it wouldn't participate in Apple Music, and yesterday, Swift posted an open letter to her Tumblr saying she would withhold her album 1989 due to this "shocking" and "disappointing" turn of events, and 17 hours later Apple's Eddy Cue apologized on Twitter and completely backtrackedArtists will now collect some royalties during the Apple Music free trial period, but at a different (presumably lower) per-stream rate, according to Apple. Applause and retweets all around. You just can't screw with Taylor Swift; she wants to get paid.

So what was this? A victory for Taylor Swift? A victory for Apple, which turned a day of headlines about Swift withholding 1989 into a day of Taylor Swift victory laps? A victory for consumers? A victory for the music industry?

Turns out it's none of the above. Instead, it's a victory for the status quo, which remains steadfastly in place even as Apple insists that its new music service will save the industry from plummeting streaming royalties just as the iPod and iTunes saved it from piracy.

There's no guarantee 1989 will be on Apple Music when it launches

Apple's frantic fallback still hasn't guaranteed that 1989 will be on Apple Music when it launches; the company has to figure out the specifics of those per-stream rates, and presumably has to sign a new deal with Swift. But the speedy damage control ensured that today's headlines would be about Taylor Swift beating Apple, not Taylor Swift being mad at Apple for not paying her. It's a win on many levels, but it also exposes a hard truth about Apple Music: it's offering the same fundamental deal to artists and labels as the much-vilified Spotify.

Here's the basic deal Spotify offers artists: a free service that pays very low per-stream royalties supported by ads but promises to convert users into paying customers of the paid service, which pays much higher royalties.

Here's the basic deal Apple is now offering artists: a three-month free trial that pays very low per-stream royalties supported by Apple's enormous bank account but promises to convert users into paying customers of the paid service, which pays much higher royalties.

Swift has been pointing the fuck-you-pay-me bus at streaming services for a year now and Apple still got smacked

Hmm. Not much of a difference there, especially if Apple doesn't convert free users to paid users at a significantly higher rate than Spotify; you'd rather get a little money indefinitely than a little money for three months. But that's the entire bet, if you think about it: the industry is wagering that Apple's marketing prowess and huge iPhone install base will allow it to sign up more paid music subscribers than any other service has seen thus far. It's probably a good bet, but it illustrates the difficult high wire act Apple is trying to pull off as it positions itself as the second-time savior of the music industry while coming up with fundamentally the same ideas as everyone else. And Apple hasn't shown any particular ability to walk that line; Taylor Swift has been pointing the fuck-you-pay-me bus at streaming services for a year now and Apple still got smacked in the face. If Apple had played it correctly, Swift would have launched Apple Music at WWDC with a live performance; instead Eddy Cue was doing damage control at midnight on a Sunday.

It's only when the services have meaningful leverage that artists back down; Swift hasn't said word one about YouTube, the most popular ad-supported streaming service in existence, because taking her videos of off YouTube would be a disaster for her fans. But Apple can't afford to have Swift taking shots at Apple Music, while Swift can just sit back and let her army of ultra-devoted fans actually buy her albums from iTunes proper.

In fact, it's curious that Apple's not overtly taking advantage of its commanding lead as a music retailer to let artists like Swift window their releases against demand. Hardcore fans might buy new records on their release days, while others might wait for them to hit the streaming catalog. Singles might be made available to buy first, or to stream for a while ahead of wider release as a promotional tactic. Apple's already taught millions of people to pay for music on iTunes, but instead of using streaming to support and expand music sales, it seems to be running two distinct services whose overlap hasn't been made entirely clear. To be fair, that's Spotify's problem as well: the company's foolishly religious stance on free streaming means that it hasn't offered any particularly innovative new solutions to the business of selling music to artists beyond yet more playlist types.

No one knows how any of this is going to work

Apple is the world's largest music retailer, so Swift was extremely deferential in her open letter yesterday. But last November, when she pulled her catalog from Spotify, she was blunt. "Everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment," she said. "And 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."

We're still in that experimental phase. No one knows how any of this is going to work, or even if paid music streaming services are a realistic path towards making music itself as valuable as tote bags and tour merch has been for Taylor Swift. But unless Apple and Spotify and all the rest try to come up with newer, better ideas, Taylor's just going to stay pissed.

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