Sunday June 21, 2015

• To Taylor, Love Dave

You’re never going to believe this, but the people who make all of the iPhone apps are arguing about you on Twitter today.

You probably assumed that your Tumblr post to Apple would cause some controversy, but I bet you didn’t guess that it would strike so deep into the heart of the Apple technology community.

Not exactly your core demographic, but this isn’t the first time your name has come up. Apple has a new programming language that they’ve named Swift. I assume in honor of you. Sure, it could also refer to some kind of technical speed, but let’s be honest here.

I’ve heard a few different arguments against your post. That you’re rich and successful already, so your opinion doesn’t matter. That you don’t understand how the music industry works. That you didn’t read the terms of the deal Apple is offering artists:

Kondrk says Apple will hand out 71.5 percent to music owners of its subscription revenue in the United States, and about 73 percent of its revenue in the rest of the world. Most streaming music services distribute around 70 percent of their revenue.

Let’s do some quick math. You would have gotten 70 percent for three months, so to make it up you’ll need 3 percent for… oh, this is easy… 70 months. As long as everyone signs up after their free trial and keeps using Apple Music for at least 70 months, it works out. Unless they’re in the U.S., in which case they’ll need to remain a customer for a little over eleven and a half years.

It’s kind of funny to see so many tech industry dudes tell a successful pop star how her business works, but I think they misunderstand what you’re trying to do, and more importantly, I think that understanding each other would be good for everyone.

Sure, there’s a valid argument to be made for this being a worthwhile way to win new ears and end up making more money overall. But that’s not an excuse to behave thoughtlessly or further marginalize the value of someone’s work. If there’s a burden of subsidy to driving the adoption of a new service, that burden is on Apple, right?

It seems like there’s a misunderstanding that you’re crying foul or accusing Apple of something shady, when I believe you’re just using your position to argue for the fairest possible deal.

A little about me: I’ve been a musician for most of my life. Pro or semi-pro at some stages, and hopefully again soon. I’ve also been a software interaction designer, so I’ve seen a little bit of both worlds. I think the problem is that the software people only really see things through the software lens.

It’s super-easy (and also super-correct, I think) to make a bunch of connections between the music industry and the software industry. The best stuff in both cases often comes from kids in garages and basements playing with noisy toys, going on to create things of real substance out of a love for the art. In both worlds, hitting a certain star-level means your work finds its way onto the mobile phones of millions of people around the world. And in both cases, the Internet has changed the way we do business, where digital files have threatened to all but obviate every method we can think of to make money.

The app makers should really relate to you on that last point. Napster may have happened sixteen years ago, but they’re just going through their business’s customer tension period. Not from file sharing or piracy — they got to watch from afar and learn some tricks to avoid those problems for the most part — but from a saddening race to the bottom for App Store pricing.

So, yeah, they also have to deal with an ecosystem that habitually devalues their work.

Except in their case, the gold rush is still very much on. Maybe not in app pricing, but most software makers I know spend the majority of their time doing contract work, building apps for hire for larger companies. Like the people who make the excellent Tumblr iPhone app — great people; I’d be happy to introduce you — or the Starbucks app.

I guess when you work in an industry where everyone is making a pretty decent living it’s harder to imagine what it must be like for artists in another industry whose controlling interests act against them.

And that’s just it! They have Apple! As corporations go, Apple is pretty good at taking care of the people that power its ecosystem. Sure, there are complaints about things like app review times, but did you know that app developers get 70% of every dollar they make on the App Store? Can you imagine getting that deal from your record company?

Right, it’s not quite a one-to-one comparison. For an artist, you have to go through the label AND a store. For most developers, they either go through Apple directly or their paychecks come independent of sales entirely.

But this is where I get excited, because I see the bigger point you’re making: the current music industry system has been anti-artist for so long that something needs to change, but that change cannot come at the expense of more artists’ rights.

Did you watch the WWDC keynote? That thing where Drake went on stage to announce Apple Music Connect? Seriously, that was my favorite part of the whole event. Drake — who skipped the label system entirely — comes out to talk about how important it is to connect with fans directly, and helps Apple announce a serious in-store tool to do that! This was very clearly a major step toward removing the record label system from the equation entirely, and I couldn’t be more excited about that.

But even then, the developer community complained that the music portion of the event dragged on, or didn’t relate to them in any way. But that’s what they don’t see: Apple views artists and software makers as ‘developers’ equally. Developers use something called “iTunes Connect” to upload their apps to the store. iTunes Connect was originally built for the record labels to upload songs. We’re all part of the same ecosystem, and the smart players on either side will be looking to one another and evaluating what works and what doesn’t.

This is an exciting time to be alive, and easily the best time in human history to be a creative type. Streaming music is already becoming the norm, but I know you know that, and that your holding of your position is both smart business and good ethics. I respect and appreciate what you’re doing there. But in my mind, this is the part people are really missing:

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.

This isn’t just about us. It’s about the producers and the songwriters and the engineers and the QA people and the designers and everyone else who spends their time making this stuff. There may not be any easy answers, but it’s important to have powerful voices asking the questions. Many of those developers will appreciate what you’re doing in time. Believe it or not, many of them are already fans.

I believe the age of cynicism is coming to an end, and your music is helping in a real way. I believe that you have the artists’ best interests in mind, and I believe Apple does too. For all we know, this is exactly the leverage they need in negotiating with labels.

As an independent musician, I think it’s great that you’re using your success to advocate for those of us who haven’t made it yet. As a maker of software, I hope that your advocacy ensures that we get a better deal when app streaming shows up in a few years.


P.S. Let’s grab a drink when you’re back in New York.

Update: Eddy Cue says that artists will be paid for free trials after all. Congratulations, Taylor.