Sunday, 21 June 2015

Sorry Taylor Swift, You're Not Entirely Correct


Pop icon Taylor Swift has had a rocky time, to say the least, with the modern phenomenon of music streaming. Last July, she took a stand against streaming service Spotify, when she removed all of her music from the service and branded it as "undervaluing the art" that is music by offering free, ad-supported subscriptions. Swift cited in particular how underpaid artists putting their music onto the streaming service were, effectively making less than a cent per stream.

Many believed Swift's dramatic exodus from Spotify was simply a part of an exclusivity deal with Apple, and their recently announced service Apple Music. But it turns out this is far from the case, as a tumblr post just today from the 25 year old revealed. The post, titled "To Apple, Love Taylor", dealt to Apple what she had dealt to Spotify last year. In an unexpected move, Swift revealed she was not going to allow her music to be streamed on Apple's service either.

Why? Unlike with Spotify, she does not discuss the lack of revenue an artist receives for each stream, rather the effect of the initial three month trial that Apple plans to grant users of the service. Swift called it "shocking, disappointing" that during these three months, Apple Music provides no revenue at all for the artists, as it receives no income from the user. And, according to herself, Taylor Swift is arguing not from her own position as a world-renowned star worth over $200m,  but from the position of "the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success", "the young songwriter", "the producer who works tirelessly". Essentially, Swift is putting forward the argument that the free 3 month trial being proposed by Apple to customers is putting smaller artists at a loss, failing to reward their efforts.

However, there are areas where I quite disagree with Taylor Swift. Firstly, she is correct about the lack of lucrative music streaming opportunities. It's no secret that despite its massive growth, Spotify has been finding difficulty in creating sustainable and spreadable profits. But is revenue really the priority of an artist, big or small, when they put their content onto streaming services such as Apple Music or Spotify? Swift's own friend Ed Sheeran disagrees with the notion of doing so with income being the primary motive. "I'm in the music industry to play live," he claimed last year. "That's why I put things on Spotify". He highlights his enjoyment of playing live, and indeed playing live is the far superior source of income for the significant majority of musicians both small and large. Sheeran sees the real value of streaming services, in how they provide a platform for artists to promote not just their music, but themselves- their merchandise, their YouTube channels and most importantly their live shows.

Like most artists, Taylor Swift derives most of her income from live shows- six months on the 'Red Tour' in 2013 bringing her an estimated $30m. Justin Timberlake provides another example of how tours bring in far more revenue. In 2013, 39 shows made him over $40m, compared with a paltry $5m from combined streaming and album sales.

For smaller artists, there is a little difference. Streaming services are arguably a little young in this respect, but 'free' media has more than shown its worth for smaller musicians, notably YouTube, from which the likes of Justin Bieber and recently Charlie Puth have found their fame. Apple Music and Spotify, with their ability to feature smaller talent, certainly has the potential to do the same for many other artists, and in that sense provide far greater value than just revenue from streaming.

And let's have a look at the impact of the three month trial in particular. Everyone knows the allure of a free trial. There is no doubt that more people will sign up to Apple Music because of it, and whether or not they leave after the trial is up is not of as much significance as we may think. Three months is quite a lot of time to explore and discover new music, to find new favourites and to support them, whether it's through merch, buying their content or a ticket to their show. Of course, users won't be able to discover everyone in this three month period, but one has to realise that artists will certainly receive more traffic and attention when there is a larger group of streamers available to them- three months of this is better than none.

And let's not forget the power of a free trial to retain customers. Apple has very deliberately set a rather long free trial of 3 months (Spotify's is just a third of this). It gives users time to get themselves hooked. Streaming music, whether from your phone, tablet or computer, becomes part of your routine and three months is ample time for the streaming habit to settle in. Therefore it is very likely that a sizeable portion of Apple Music free-triallers will continue their subscriptions and pay for the service after the trial is up, providing the paid support that Swift wishes for.

It's important to note that Taylor Swift is not totally anti-streaming. She notes in her open letter that everyone knows that Apple "has the money to pay artists... for this three month trial period", and indeed this is true. Apple should cough up for the artists in this three month period.

But even if it doesn't pay out, it's not entirely correct to argue that musicians, big or small, will not benefit at all from streaming, whether it's Apple Music or Spotify. For the value of all types of music streaming clearly lies not in its money making capacity, but rather it's ability to promote, to introduce artists and their work to vast amounts of new audiences. These new audiences, and the money that they spend buying merchandise, albums and live tickets are the most substantial, long-term rewards that streaming, free or paid, brings to artists.

So Taylor, making massive amounts of money from Apple Music or Spotify, as you know well, is probably a futile effort for most artists. But that doesn't mean there's no value, nothing to offer to artists, in these services.
Mohammad Lone Editor