Taylor Swift's Apple Music Coup and the Ongoing Streaming Revenue Blues

The Monday morning entertainment news scene was dominated by what passes for a David versus Goliath story in 2015: With the publication of a plain-language Tumblr post, Taylor Swift seemingly convinced tech behemoth Apple to pay music rights-holders during a free trial period of its new streaming service. Under the previous agreement, Apple would collect zero revenue and thus, pass on zero revenue to the owners of the more than 30 million songs that would be made available on June 30. 

Swift's post was published Sunday morning and by Sunday evening, Apple's senior VP of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, tweeted that Apple would be adjusting its royalty policy to be more amenable with the pop artist's demands. 

Previous to Swift's involvement, it had been independent music labels that had called attention to the "revenue black hole" represented by a universal three-month free trail. On June 10, Music Business Worldwide reported that indie label representative Merlin was refusing to sign with Apple based on the revenue hole produced by the Apple Music trial. MBW also noted that the three major music labels (Universal, Sony, and Warner) had come to an agreement with Apple. Fact Magazine reported five days later that the American Association of Independent Music and the Canadian Independent Music Association were also opposed to the deal. The Association of Independent Music in the UK also came out against the Apple contract.

Around this time, Re/Code and Complex reported that Apple was confirming it would agree to pay between 70 and 73 percent of streaming revenue to rights owners once the trial was over on September 30 (a standard that roughly matches what Spotify pays the labels, even during free trials, according to a spokesperson).

On Wednesday of last week, seven days after MBW broke the story on the Apple Music contract, major indie group Beggars publicly explained that they would not sign with Apple Music due to concerns regarding the free trial revenue gap. 

This was where the controversy stood until Taylor Swift entered the fray.

At this time on social media, the prevailing theme is that Swift has taken a stance for the little guy. After all, she said as much on her Tumblr:

"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."

However, wherever some admiration for a mega pop star surfaces, Cynical Twitter is not far behind. The prevailing conspiracy is that Taylor and Apple coordinated to give Apple a high-profile chance to make the "good decision" and drum up significant press for Apple Music's launch in a little over one week. 

The last time Taylor Swift made headlines for her contentious relationship with music streaming services, it was when she pulled her entire discography off Spotify. After more than 5 million copies of 1989 sold, it appears, so far, that Swift has no reason to regret that decision. So, on the one hand, Swift seems to mostly be an incredibly savvy business person who knows how to keep her product at high-value. And, on the other, she can argue that she's already made the bulk of her direct sales revenue from her latest production and really is looking out for the smaller artists. (Note that Swift doesn't have a categorical problem with streaming services - she allowed Jay-Z's Tidal to incorporate her library into its service).

Whatever one's views on Swift's motivations, the larger debate is far from settled. Seventy percent of revenue will seem to many as a fair split between streaming services and rights-holders, but the era of post-Napster digital music still has a major discrepancy between what labels collect and what performing artists receive. The myriad ways the revenue breaks down in a music label's favor are chronciled by HypebotTechDirt, and TechHive, among others.

We were just about to leave it on that note, but Calvin Harris just had to drop some tabloid fodder at publish time.

Best of luck out there, music fans of an ethical persuasion.