Sunday 20 October 2019

How Taylor Swift made Apple crumble

Next week she conquers Ireland with sell-out gigs in Dublin, but this week it was the turn of a corporate behemoth to bend to her iron will. We take a look at how 25-year-old Swift is reshaping the music business

Taylor Swift - not to be crossed
Taylor Swift - not to be crossed
Taylor Swift and Harry Styles
Apology: Taylor Swift and Kanye West at the Grammy Awards this year

Ed Power

Taylor Swift is not to be crossed. Kanye West discovered this to his cost in 2009 when he bum-rushed the singer at an awards ceremony and spent the next year giving public penance. The lesson was also learned by her ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal, whom Swift skewered with her recriminatory break-up dirge 'We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together' (to a generation of teenage girls Gyllenhaal, by every account a stand-up chap, has become a cipher for the boyfriend from hell).

The latest to experience first hand the Wrath of Taylor is tech goliath Apple, this week embarrassed into a climbdown over plans to offer subscribers to its new music streaming service free access for three months. The deal was sweet for punters but not so great for artists, whom Apple would not pay for songs streamed during that 12 week giveaway. But when Swift threatened to pull her music from the site - as she has already done from rival Spotify - and wrote a blog detailing her reasons, the world's most profitable company reversed course at light speed. Swift's intervention had, it said, 'solidified' its thoughts on compensating musicians (customers will still have their three free months).

This was no random intervention by Swift, who seems to be on a one-woman crusade to save the music industry. As noted above, she is already boycotting Spotify, the leading streaming site, with over 75 million users. Here the issue isn't royalties but the Swedish company's 'fremium' model, whereby subscribers have access to unlimited music (albeit with ads) free gratis. Music has value, Swift argues. Don't just give it away.

Amid her politicking, it could be easily overlooked that the 25-year-old is also a pop star, currently touring last year's biggest selling album, 1989. She brings her show to Dublin on Monday for two beyond-sold out dates - by all accounts, fans can look for a performance equal parts machine-tooled and fluffily endearing.

By any standards it's an impressive balancing act - furnishing teenage girls with throwaway pop (some of it quite sophisticated at a musical level) even as she wages a campaign on behalf of a sector that has suffered more than any other at the hands of internet file-sharing.

"I think Taylor standing up to Apple was a brave move, and really something that needed to happen to be honest." says Irish music producer Brian Sheil. "Unfortunately, though, it also shows that it takes a music industry giant to stand up to one of biggest companies in the world."

Swift's intervention comes as a straitened moment for music. To many, the business is a busted flush - setting aside the booming live scene, the industry's chief revenue models have all but vanished. Sales of physical media have shrunk, with CD revenues in the US tumbling from $13bn in 2000 to a little over $2bn in 2013 (yes, vinyl is resurgent - from a statistically insignificant base). The results of this defenestration can be seen all around. Where is today's equivalent of Nirvana's Nevermind? What group is going to release a record with the afterlife of Fleetwood Mac's 40 million-shifting Rumours or Michael Jackson's Thriller? Could Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon happen in 2015? The answer, as we survey the barren wasteland that is the mainstream music, is absolutely not.

"What's happened is that revenues have gone down massively in the music industry and people aren't investing in bands," Chris Wolstenholme of the band Muse told me recently.

"The problem now is that, even if you get a record deal, you don't get any money. Call us selfish - part of the appeal about wanting to be an actor or a footballer or a rock star is that you get to be rich and famous. Well, in music now, you have to take the 'rich' bit out of it."

The story of the record business's transition from the most profitable wing of the entertainment industry to one struggling to survive is succinctly told in a How Music Got Free, a remarkable new book by journalist Stephen Witt (ironically the e-book version has already leaked to file-share sites). He paints a picture of a sector addicted to the fat profits offered by compact discs (which cost a fragment of their circa €15 retail price to produce) and blind, through the 90s and early 2000s, to the threat posed by digital music.

Witt also details the degree to which the leaking of new and unreleased albums was the work of an exclusive group of radicals with privileged access to music. These included journalists and radio presenters who would upload promotional CDs to file-share sites, as well as the employees of disc pressing plants.

The most remarkable case he uncovered was Dell Glover, employed at a pressing plant at remote King Mountain, North Carolina and identified by Witt as the 'patient zero' of file-sharing. Through the early 2000s, Glover disseminated dozens of marquee albums - by Eminem, Outkast and others - weeks before their official release, despite an intense security crackdown by his bosses ("there wasn't a person younger than 30 who couldn't trace music in his collection to Glover," writes Witt).

"Remember, these were mostly young guys, so the kind of thrill-seeking behaviour that you expect of teenage boys is exactly what they were engaging in," Witt said of these pioneer uploaders in a recent interview. "What they were doing was revolutionary, although they probably didn't think of it that way at the time. A lot of them did talk about the dopamine rush. People would routinely try to quit and then would find themselves unable to. So it does have some sort of addictive properties."

Reading Witt's book, it's hard not to feel nostalgia for the era when file-sharing was edgy and rebellious, the music industry a goliath it was easy to hate. A decade and a half on, many artists are scraping by, often required to spend months of the year touring instead of in a studio pushing boundaries. Were the Beatles around today it is unlikely they would have the opportunity to make Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - simply to pay their rent, they would have had to stay on the road.

For that reason, the consensus is that Swift was heroic in confronting Apple. However, not everyone is convinced her motives were 100pc selfless.

"She is a very shrewd and successful businesswoman and musician. Somebody probably had to call out Apple on this but I'm not sure her motives were all that altruistic," says Ciaran Ryan of Limerick label Out On A Limb.

"At the end of the day, Swift isn't exactly being subversive or oppositional to a mainstream entertainment industry that ensures that 'stars' get paid one way or the other, whether that is [selling] cosmetics or getting corporate sponsorship for touring." 

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