Tuesday 23 July 2019

Why pop star Swift could teach our Government about the value of work

Taylor Swift’s victory over Apple means she has become an unlikely champion for those expected to work for free
Taylor Swift’s victory over Apple means she has become an unlikely champion for those expected to work for free
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

All hail Taylor Swift, whose transformation from pipsqueak pop princess to campaigning global superstar with the power to make greedy corporations quake is now complete.

Less than 24 hours after Swift wrote an angry blog post calling on tech giant Apple to pay royalties to musicians during the free three-month trial of its new streaming service, the company had caved.

"Apple will always make sure that artists are paid, we hear you Taylor Swift and indie artists," tweeted Apple's senior vice-president for internet services Eddy Cue.

The singer had written that she found it "shocking and disappointing" that the "historically progressive and generous" company had decided not to pay the people making the music it was using to attract customers.

"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 ... three months is a long time to go unpaid and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing," she wrote.

She also made the point that Apple, which is worth nearly €700bn and is sitting on a cash pile of a staggering €180bn, could easily afford to pay struggling musicians for their work. Swift, who raked in $64m last year, is not exactly on the breadline, but she said she made her intervention on behalf of broke up-and-coming artists and songwriters who were expected to essentially bankroll Apple's initial foray into streaming music.

While a barrage of complaints from an increasing number of independent record labels, threatening to boycott Apple's new service unless they were paid, also likely contributed to its climb-down, it was the power and reach of Swift's voice that ultimately proved decisive. With Apple Music due to launch at the end of the month, the company didn't want to be depicted as a grasping, corporate behemoth in a bitter war of words with one of the most popular performers in the world and, so, quickly cut its losses and capitulated.

Apple wasn't the only corporate scalp that Swift acquired over the weekend. On Saturday, she eviscerated 'OK! Magazine' for a click-bait headline falsely implying she was pregnant and for referring to her, in the first sentence of its article, as "Harry Styles' ex-girlfriend" - as if her brief tryst with the One Direction star marked the height of her professional accomplishments.

"This misleading headline and your choice of words in labelling me are why we need feminism in 2015," she tweeted at the tabloid, a smackdown that quickly went viral among her 59.2m followers. Clearly, media companies mess with Swift at their peril.

Having started out as an anodyne country singer nine years ago, the 25-year-old has not always been so vocal and was once better known for her succession of high-profile boyfriends than kicking corporate ass.

Asked in 2012 if she considered herself a feminist, she said she didn't "really think about things as guys versus girls" and that she had been "brought up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life".

However, all of that seemed to change last year when she had, what she described as, "a feminist awakening", which appeared to be largely prompted by the fact that the names of the men she dated invariably prefaced her own in media reports about her. Instead of being championed as an inspiration to young women, for having won more than 200 awards including seven Grammy Awards, Swift was perennially portrayed in the media as some sort of sad loser who was unable to keep a boyfriend.

While young men in the music industry are expected to blaze a trail through a phalanx of models and groupies as some sort of pre-ordained rite of passage, Swift was pilloried for being in her early twenties and daring to have more than one boyfriend.

"Why is it mischievous, fun and sexy if a guy has a string of lovers that he's cast aside, loved and left? Yet if a woman dates three or four people in an eight-year period she's a serial dater and it gives some 12-year-old the idea to call her a slut on the internet?" she complained.

Earlier this year, when she topped a men's magazine's "hot 100" list, she used the inauspicious occasion as an opportunity to school its readers in the barriers and double standards that women still face in their everyday lives.

"Misogyny is ingrained in people from the time they are born. So to me, feminism is probably the most important movement that you could embrace, because it's just basically another word for equality," she said, a message the average 'Maxim' reader was probably not expecting to find among its pages of scantily clad models.

Having allowed gossip columnists to frame her public image for most of her career, Swift has finally found her voice and has shown she is not afraid to stand up for her principles, last year withdrawing her entire back catalogue from another streaming site, Spotify. Her complaint, that these sites foster "the perception that music has no value and should be free", is one that could be applied to many different industries, which routinely demand free labour, and has relevance that extends much further than the music industry.

Increasingly, young people are expected to donate their work and their innovation to corporations for free, in the form of unpaid internships that may or may not result in a job. Even when internships are paid, they often do not come with the associated benefits, like a pension entitlement or sick pay, that salaried workers enjoy.

Worryingly, yesterday, a recruitment survey from GradIreland found that employers are increasingly using internship schemes as a replacement for traditional entry-level positions. It is therefore no surprise that nearly 70pc of students surveyed last year said they were worried about their future career prospects, up from 57pc in 2013.

Meanwhile, JobBridge continues to insult the long-term unemployed by inviting them to work as unpaid trainees in menial jobs for nine months with no guarantee of employment at the end. The Government, with its championing of the scheme and its refusal to amend it despite evidence that some unscrupulous employers are abusing it, is effectively helping to institutionalise this race to the bottom and cultivate a culture of unpaid work.

It was introduced at a time of crisis, when the unemployment rate was 15pc, so why is the Government refusing to reform JobBridge if the job market is now so much healthier? Perhaps those being asked to apply for unpaid internships, for a career in car washing or sandwich making, should take some inspiration from Taylor Swift and tell the Government, and those employers, where to go.

Irish Independent

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