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Taylor Swift to Apple: Pay Me if You Want to Play Me

Her beef: Apple's free three-month trial. "These are not the complaints of a spoiled, petulant child."

Big Machine
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

When Apple launches its new music service on June 30, it will let everyone try it for free for three months.

And that’s why “1989,” Taylor Swift’s newest album, won’t be on Apple’s music service.

More specifically, Swift says she won’t let Apple stream her album because the company isn’t paying music owners anything during its three-month trial period.

Those terms are “shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company,” Swift writes in an open letter to Apple that she posted today. “We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

This is Swift’s second high-profile music streaming dispute: Last fall she demanded that Spotify pull the same album from the free version of that company’s service. When Spotify didn’t comply she pulled her entire catalog from both Spotify’s free and paid versions.

Apple’s upcoming Apple Music service was designed in part to take advantage of the ensuing controversy Swift created: Apple declared, loudly and often, that Swift was right to complain that Spotify’s free version, which offers unlimited, ad-supported on-demand streaming, devalued music. Apple executives argued that music “needs to get behind a paywall,” and promised that their new service would require users to pay up.

But Apple will still have that free three-month trial. And the sticking point with Swift, and at least some other music owners, is that it won’t pay rights owners during that period.

I’ve asked Apple for comment, but Apple executive Robert Kondrk already acknowledged the issue when he spoke to me earlier this month. He said Apple is paying out slightly higher royalties to music owners in part because Apple wanted a three-month free trial instead of the industry standard one month.

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.

Those terms satisfied Universal Music Group, Sony Music and Warner Music Group, the world’s three biggest music labels. But Apple hasn’t come to terms with some indie music labels, who are also complaining about the three-month trial.

It’s unclear whether those complaints will mean much. While Swift may be the biggest star in music, she’s also in a very rare position where she can control what happens to her songs. While Swift doesn’t control Big Machine, the music label that owns her music, she does reportedly have an equity stake in the label. And she is working hand-in-hand with Big Machine founder Scott Borchetta.

“We’re not against anybody, but we’re not responsible for new business models,” Borchetta told Bloomberg Businessweek last fall, after the Spotify dust-up. “If they work, fantastic, but it can’t be at the detriment of our own business.”

Swift’s version of that argument, from her post today: “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 publicly because we admire and respect Apple so much. We simply do not respect this particular call.”

“I realize that Apple is working towards a goal of paid streaming. I think that is beautiful progress. We know how astronomically successful Apple has been and we know that this incredible company has the money to pay artists, writers and producers for the three-month trial period … even if it is free for the fans trying it out.”

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