Taylor Swift may have won her battle with Apple Music, but the streaming wars aren’t over

The artist sent an open letter to Apple Music, arguing that artists should be paid during the service's trial period. 

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Taylor Swift has claimed a victory for the music industry – and, if the internet is to be believed, for the world at large. In the middle of last night, her impassioned open letter calling for Apple’s streaming service to pay artists during its free trial period hit home, and Apple agreed to change its business model. 

The original Tumblr post, “To Apple, Love Taylor”, has already been shared hundreds of thousands of times. In it, Swift maintains that “this is not about me” and that she is no “petulant child”:

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.”

In a series of tweets ending, of course, “love, Apple”, senior vice president Eddy Cue announced last night that Apple will pay rights holders out of its own pocket during the service's three month-long free trial. Apple has since stated that “independent record labels” forced its hand, too. But it’s clear that Swift played a major, if not majority, part in the decision: she pulled her music from Apple’s direct competitor, Spotify, last year in a dispute over pay, offering Apple Music the chance to use her as a real selling point. 

As her partner Calvin Harris tweeted this morning: “My girl just changed the entire music industry”. Props to Taylor. 

Except, well, has she? Swift’s victory means that artists won’t, as she puts it in her blogpost, “work for nothing” if their music is streamed by Apple customers during their initial three month trial. Yet if she does agree to provide both her back catalogue and newest album on Apple’s service she’s still pinning her colours to the mast of a company that will not offer artists significantly more than Spotify, a company she is still locked in a feud with. 

Let’s look at the numbers. Apple Music originally intended to hand over nothing to the music's owners during the three month trial, then a 71.5 per cent cut of membership subscriptions from then on if the user is in the the US, and an average of 73 per cent in the rest of the world. Now, owners will get this proportion both in-trial and out. This is 1.5 per cent more than Spotify hands back to music owners if listeners are using the paid subscription service. Under both systems, artists get a fraction of a penny per play, depending on their contracts with record labels. 

In a way, the similarity between the two models is not surprising. Spotify, despite Swift’s problems with it, is successful, and the company is actually quite pragmatic about its model's limits. It has stated in the past that the pennies artists earn under the pay-per-play metric is a “highly flawed indication of our value to artists”. Instead, the company sees itself as promoting artists in a way that people pay something for, which is a better alternative than piracy. In an environment where music and video consumers can still get almost anything for free, payment of any kind is still viewed as a victory. Successful streaming services are carrying out a balancing act, between giving artists enough to make it worth their while, and making the service cheap and easy enough that consumers will actually pay for it. 

Tidal, owned by Jay-Z, is a useful counterpoint here. It’s a more expensive, more exclusive model that offers better sound quality and "curated editorial" under a $20 a month membership (you can also go for a $10 option with lower sound quality) and passes over 75 per cent of fees from membership to music owners. Once again, this isn’t actually a huge increase on the Spotify model, though the higher membership rate and the lack of free streaming services probably means that artists get a fair bit more overall. The service also offers artists a share in the company in return for “support” and exclusive content – "Feeling Myself", a recent collaboration between Nicky Minaj and Beyonce, was released exclusively on the service. 

To any cash-strapped twenty-something, this description throws up all kinds of red flags. The $20 subscription is too expensive  - both Spotify and Apple Music offer all features on their $10/£10 per month subscriptions - and the air of exclusivity may be offputting. Shortly after the launch was announced, Lily Allen criticised the model on her Twitter account:

I love Jay-Z so much, but Tidal is (so) expensive compared to other perfectly good streaming services, he's taken the biggest artists... Made them exclusive to Tidal (am I right in thinking this?), people are going to swarm back to pirate sites in droves." 

(Allen gets it slightly wrong here - artists themselves aren’t exclusive to Tidal, but as with “Feeling Myself”, they can release certain tracks exclusively on the service.)

Other critics included Marcus Mumford and Ben Gibbard, frontman of Death Cab for Cutie. Both point out that the service seeems to benefit music's millionaires and billionaires, not its underdogs. So far, Tidal has around 600,000 paying members, compared to Spotify's 20 milion. 

In this context, you wonder what exactly Swift is fighting for in her feud with Spotify. The service has a free, ad-supported option and a £5/$5 a month option, which offer artists less of a cut and is where Swift's objection seems to lie, yet its huge number of users surely outweighs these drawbacks. Her attack on Spotify's business model as a whole seems a little strong - especially as in her open letter, she calls Apple’s move into streaming “beautiful progress”. This shows a marked change from a statement she released last year, after she fell out Spotify:

[Spotify's streaming service] feels to me a bit like a grand experiment. And I'm not willing to contribute my life's work to an experiment that I don't feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music."

The winning experiment in the streaming wars will be the company which offers the easiest, most reasonably priced service –  and which also manages to keep major artists, Swift included, on board. Apple has form on this sort of thing: its programs and hardware are usually incredibly easy to use; while its surrender to Swift’s demands shows that it’s keen to strike the right balance between consumers and artists. Whether it will manage it, though, is another question. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.