Well, it’s official: Taylor Swift is the adorably cherubic face of independent artists looking to make a career in music.
On Sunday, Taylor Swift wrote an open letter to Apple, Inc. (AAPL) (on Tumblr, in case there was any doubt that Swift has an impeccable understanding of her audience) wherein she publicly calls out the giant corporation for their policy of failing to pay royalties to artists. More specifically, Apple had planned to offer no compensation to artists during the free three-month trial phaseof their soon-to-launch streaming site Apple Music. However, on June 21st, the company reversed course, citing Swift’s letter as the catalyst that inspired Apple’s newfound sense of goodwill toward musicians – or, beloved pop-stars, anyway.
Swift’s triumph is particularly impressive when you take into consideration the colorful history of rich and famous musicians voicing their displeasure with the direction of their industry.
Aging Rock Stars Exit Light, Enter Night
About fifteen years ago, there was a thing called Napster, and a guy called Lars Ulrich, who was a drummer for a heavy metal outfit called Metallica. Ulrich made headlines bemoaning the prevalence of sharing music, and blaming music piracy for ruining the income stream of middle-aged multimillionaire musicians like himself. Ulrich ended up sounding much less like a voice for starving artists and musicians and a lot more like a cantankerous, over-the-hill relic of a bloated and dying industry.
More recently, Mr. Beyoncé himself, Jay-Z (aka Shawn Carter) suffered a rare entrepreneurial misstep with the failed launch of his Hi-Def streaming site Tidal, which had many music fans calling out Shawn Carter for economic elitism. To be fair, Hova did tell us all in no uncertain terms that he is not a businessman, though it seems he’s not much of a “business, man” either, these days. So, how come Taylor Swift can fight for artists to get paid for streaming music and be heralded as the voice of a generation, and when Jay-Z actually creates a service that provides a model to do so, he’s accused of being a member of the Illuminati?
Taylor Swift: The Catchy Bubblegum Voice of the People
When strategizing her Apple takedown, Swift had the good sense to NOT attack her fans for downloading torrents of her much-loved music, or of creating a cabal of wealthy artists behind a paywall that smacked of elitism. Instead, she called out one of the world’s largest, most iconic corporations – one that’s no stranger to claims of taking advantage of employees – and made a very public example of them.
In short, Taylor showed that she has her finger on the pulse of Internet culture, and she knows exactly how to provoke a response. Taylor cast herself as sweet-natured, plucky heroine fighting the good fight against a giant, greedy corporation for the rights of artists who are simply trying to bring joy into the world.
Serious Question: Is Taylor Swift a Genius?
It may seem like a strong assertion, but a case can be made that Taylor Swift is a Machiavellian business strategist. Remember that only a few months back (several eons in Internet time), Swift was getting flak from her fans for wiping clean the entire Internet of essentially every song she’s ever put out – forcing fans to pay up or visit her label’s official pages to get their fix of “Blank Space.”
In the populist-driven Internet culture, this could have smacked of the sort of snobbery that immediately tanked Tidal, but here we are today, with Swift taking full control of the narrative – a narrative that places her firmly among her fans and fellow artists as a victim of corporate greed. Simply put, Taylor Swift is the master of Taylor Swift.
But that begs the question: Is Taylor truly a champion of rights for artists, or only a savvy navigator of the Taylor Swift Brand? Is it possible to be both?
Taylor makes a solid point in her open letter to Apple when she writes “This isn’t about me. Thankfully I’m on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, my crew, and entire management team by playing live shows.” It’s true – Taylor Swift has proven she can make millions based on her inarguable talent for creating catchy pop songs. She has a lot to lose and only so much to gain by making enemies at Apple. Meanwhile, she’s not wrong that just about every artist and creative has been very anxious about their ability to make money working at their craft, and most have little-to-no sway in an industry that can always find someone who is willing to work more hours for less money if it offers the opportunity to follow their passion.
That said, Swift writes her missive on a Tumblr page titled “taylorswift.tumblr.com,” in text superimposed over a professionally-shot photo of Swift looking incredible – precisely illustrating the paradox of activism in the digital age. In the end, it always reflects back to the writer/author/activist delivering the message.
In Taylor’s World, We’re All Winners…Especially Taylor
So, incredibly, this might just be a case where everyone wins. Taylor Swift has solidified her image as a force in the recording industry that is NOT to be trifled with. Artists are getting their royalties during the Apple Music free three-month trial period, and perhaps more importantly, they may feel emboldened to speak out and demand more from streaming services in the future, ensuring their ability to make a living pursuing their passion in the digital age.
You might say that Apple is a loser here, but don’t be so sure. After all, they were provided a very public forum to illustrate that they respect and take seriously the complaints of the young artist who is drawing attention to their business practices, while also getting a great deal of free publicity for their impending streaming service. Sure, they’ll have to write off a few million or so in royalties for the next three months, but for a company with a market cap of more than $735 billion, throwing a few bones to Mumford and Sons shouldn’t be too much of a strain.
So shake it off, Apple, and don’t worry about being bested by Swift. Like everyone else filling the blank spaces in her little black book, you might as well learn to love the game.
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