A few weeks back, during Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, the tech company officially unveiled it's music streaming service, Apple Music. At the time, it also announced the service would launch with a three-month free trial period. What they did not mention publicly was that they didn't plan on actually paying the rights holders to the music people streamed during this trial period. Since it was free, musicians were expected to eat the streaming fees as well, since Apple wouldn't be directly profiting off the streams, and thus have nothing to pass back. This came off as penny-pinching by a company that has nearly $200 billion dollars of spending cash.
Of course, pop stars would be fine missing out on three months of royalty. The real losers here would be smaller artists, who rely on any and all income to survive. And that was exactly the angle that mega pop star Taylor Swift took in her open letter to Apple yesterday, criticizing the company for not paying out fees during this trial period:
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.
These are not the complaints of a spoiled, petulant child. These are the echoed sentiments of every artist, writer and producer in my social circles who are afraid to speak up publicly because we admire and respect Apple so much. We simply do not respect this particular call.
Once Apple was publicly shamed by one of the biggest musical acts in the world, they swiftly went into PR control mode and announced they will in fact be paying out royalties.
#AppleMusic will pay artist for streaming, even during customer’s free trial period
— Eddy Cue (@cue) June 22, 2015
We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists. Love, Apple
— Eddy Cue (@cue) June 22, 2015
Today, everybody is lauding Taylor Swift as the music business' savior. "Taylor Swift for president!" one of my friends wrote when sharing this story. But one other friend made an excellent point about this debacle and how it relates to the past of the music industry. Producer and former Daath guitarist Eyal Levi decided to chime into the conversation with this incredible nugget of wisdom:
Levi makes an excellent point. Metallica at the time were going after Napster for virtually the exact same reason that Swift was going after Apple: artists need to get paid when their music is being used. But at the time, the Metallica suit was positioned as the band attacking their fans and being greedy while now, 15 years later, Swift is being positioned as a saviour of music going after a greedy corporation. But weren't they really fighting for the same thing? In fact, here are some passages from Lars Ulrich's testimony to congress virtually echoing the above passage that Taylor Swift wrote, 15 years ago:
I don't have a problem with any artist voluntarily distributing his or her songs through any means the artist elects– at no cost to the consumer, if that's what the artist wants. But just like a carpenter who crafts a table gets to decide whether to keep it, sell it or give it away , shouldn't we have the same options? My band authored the music which is Napster's lifeblood. We should decide what happens to it, not Napster — a company with no rights in our recordings, which never invested a penny in Metallica's music or had anything to do with its creation. The choice has been taken away from us.
What about the users of Napster, the music consumers? It's like each of them won one of those contests where you get turned loose in a store for five minutes and get to keep everything you can load into your shopping cart. With Napster, though, there's no time limit and everyone's a winner-except the artist. Every song by every artist is available for download at no cost and, of course, with no payment to the artist, the songwriter or the copyright holder. [..]
We typically employ a record producer, recording engineers, programmers, assistants and, occasionally, other musicians. We rent time for months at recording studios which are owned by small businessmen who have risked their own capital to buy, maintain and constantly upgrade very expensive equipment and facilities. Our record releases are supported by hundreds of record company employees and provide programming for numerous radio and television stations. Add it all up and you have an industry with many jobs–a very few glamorous ones like ours — and a greater number of demanding ones covering all levels of the pay scale for wages which support families and contribute to our economy. [..] It's clear, then, that if music is free for downloading, the music industry is not viable; all the jobs I just talked about will be lost and the diverse voices of the artists will disappear. The argument I hear a lot, that "music should be free," must then mean that musicians should work for free. Nobody else works for free. Why should musicians?
The sentiment is basically the same. Artists need to be paid. How come people weren't calling for Lars to be president? Instead, Metallica were vilified, seen as attacking their fan base… when in reality, they saw the writing on the wall. The music business eventually caved in on itself and the only solution was "well if people have access to every song anyway, let's at least legitimize it and make it legal." And thus, this has lead to streaming services, that do offer some sort of payment to artists.
In fact, if you have the time to watch this Charlie Rose episode from around the time of the Napster lawsuit, and listen to what Chuck D and Lars are saying, it's crazy to look back and see many of the predictions Lars makes about the music industry were actually true:
So perhaps Lars was kind of right? Maybe we should stop giving the band shit for the lawsuit that happened 15 years ago, where the thing they were complaining about was actually very on point. Really, the real loser/villan here is the music industry, for themselves not seeing the writing on the wall when this was happening and launching their own service to compete with Napster, like a Spotify or Apple Music. Instead, they were fine with playing whack-a-mole while attempting to charge $20 a CD, while their entire empire crumbled.
For more on the Napster lawsuit, here's our episode of Countdown recalling it: