Here’s a quick tl;dr of what’s been going on lately in the music industry:
- Apple’s coming out with a streaming media service, akin to Spotify
- Word got out that (apparently) Apple wasn’t going to pay artists during the three-month free trial
- Taylor Swift thought that wasn’t too cool, and wrote an open letter to Apple
- Apple responds with “OMG lolz yur so right TayTay!!!”
I have a background in music, and have a little knowledge on what the record industry is like and how it all works. I’m no expert, but this whole thing reeks of a really good (read: effective) marketing scheme cooked up by Apple.
Before I jump into the parallels between this whole story and our story as indie authors, let me take a few moments to do some bud-nipping:
1. Apple actually planned on paying these royalties.
This is all third-party information and therefore hard to prove, but it seems as though Eddie Cue (in charge of the new service at Apple) said to the New York Times that they’d intended on raising the royalty rate after the three-month introductory period to make up for “lost” royalties. From WashingtonPost.com:
“When I woke up this morning and read Taylor’s note, it really solidified that we need to make a change,” Cue told the New York Times. He told the newspaper that Apple’s plan had been to eventually pay a slightly higher royalty rate to compensate for the initial unpaid trial period, but that the company had listened to the complaints of Swift and small record labels.
Why in the world would Apple wait around to pay artists?
Maybe because it would give them a chance to feel out the service a bit, see where they needed to improve/change, and generally solidify things like the actual royalty rates they’d pay to artists.
Doesn’t matter. I find it hard to believe that a service by a giant like Apple can totally, 100%, without discussion internally change its mind literally overnight. Which leads me to believe that this debacle involving their music service, suspiciously only a week away from launch, was somewhat “massaged” by the marketing department.
2. Taylor Swift doesn’t control her record label, and therefore where her music is sold.
Taylor Swift gets to make calls on where her music is sold all by herself, on a Tumblr blog? Right…
First, let me remind you that this new service wasn’t just Cooked up (pun intended, as Tim Cook is CEO of Apple…) overnight. Apple’s probably been wheeling and dealing with major labels for months, at least.
The other thing to keep in mind is that Taylor isn’t the person responsible for securing placement in Apple’s store, or any other store for that matter. The fact that she thinks she’s the one who’s going to make these deals (again, on a Tumblr blog) is naive at best and completely fabricated at worst.
3. Taylor Swift isn’t a “normal” artist, so she should stop acting like one.
“Normal” means usual, typical, or expected, so Taylor Swift is about as far from “normal” music artist as you can be. “Normal” instead is a descriptor for the countless artists and musicians who work long nights at bars and venues, scraping together enough gas money to get them to the next town, hoping to sell enough merch to order the next month’s fulfillment. This isn’t a romantic reenactment of every rags-to-riches movie about music, it’s real life.
So why is Taylor talking about all of them as if she’s one of them? Here’s a quote:
“These are not the complaints of a spoiled, petulant child,” she added. “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.”
Now, she might be referring to the John Mayers and Kanyes in her “social circle,” but she’s certainly not talking about the ones fighting tooth and nail to make a living in this industry, right?
Here’s why these things matter, and how it relates to authors:
Let’s pretend for a moment that the names are changed to describe a situation about indie writers instead of indie musicians.
Amazon would be Apple, Taylor Swift (not independent but backed by millions of dollars in advertising and label support) would be James Patterson (not “self-publishing” but backed by millions of dollars in advertising and publisher support), and the indie musicians she’s looking out for will be me, Nick Thacker.
Here’s how it plays out:
Amazon (or “Papa ‘Zon’s”) decides to launch a new subscription service that allows users to download books for a monthly price, offering it free for three months as a trial (don’t mind that they already have this service, called Kindle Unlimited, as well as a similar service called the Kindle Owners Lending Library).
Amazon takes the authors already in its catalog (i.e. the “indies” and “Big 6’ers” who have already negotiated a partnership with them) and sticks them in their new service.
James Patterson (remember, the “Taylor Swift” of this scenario) writes a blog post about how Amazon is screwing “all of us authors,” and that “we’re not going to get paid for those three months, so we should opt out!” and calls it an outrage.
Here are my problems with that:
First, James Patterson and I aren’t even in the same league. He’s playing with TV commercials while I’m trying to get a BookBub ad. He’s got movies while I’m hoping to have a conversation about optioning movie rights. He’s making… more than I am.
He doesn’t need Amazon to sell his books. He can do that himself, or at any of the thousand brand retailers around the world who will stock him in grocery stores, airports, and bookstores.
Second, I don’t want him anywhere near my contracts. What I mean is that what worked to get him to the top is the same thing that worked for Taylor: they got discovered. Not by readers or fans of music, but by the gatekeepers. They got a “deal” that catapulted them to massive success. I’m not implying they didn’t work hard to get there, but they certainly don’t need to play opening acts at local clubs for tips or do a 5-day free promo at Amazon to try to get their book to budge from the 100k+ rank.
If Amazon, a company who’s doing massive sales volume, wants to stick my books up in front of a million pairs of eyeballs, um… I’m in.
I don’t care if they want to do it for a year for free. I’m in.
Apple has a lot of music in their system for this new service. What do you think that music is doing during that three-month trial?
It’s moving around, shuffling itself based on downloads and plays and purchases.
In essence, it’s ranking.
And in our scenario, my books would be doing the same thing: they’d be going up the ranks, earning more and more eyeballs during that three-month free trial. When the trial period ends, guess where my books will be sitting?
Higher than they would if I’d have waited until the three-months was over to add them to the service.
Taylor is suggesting that it’s not smart for indies to add their music to the service until the trial period has ended. The American Association for Independent Music isn’t suggesting anything: they’re explicitly encouraging it:
Reps for the American Association for Independent Music, which represents most of the top indies, declined to comment, but last week, the association posted a highly skeptical comment about Apple’s proposed contract: “Since a sizable percentage of Apple’s most voracious music consumers are likely to initiate their free trials at launch, we are struggling to understand why rights holders would authorize their content on the service before October 1st,” the association wrote. “Please do not feel rushed to sign Apple’s current offer.” RollingStone.com
I’m suggesting that both the AAIM and Taylor Swift are wrong. Imagine the benefit indie artists will have with that three-month “head start.” They’ll show up higher in the rankings, search results, and top charts, and therefore have an opportunity to make much more after the trial period ends.
Assuming they weren’t going to pay higher royalties to make up for the free trial period, Apple is basically offering indies and record labels this proposition:
“Earn nothing for three months, but generate a ton of exposure and push your music up the rankings, or earn nothing for three months.”
That’s like Amazon asking me to join their new marketing scheme, offering: “Earn nothing for three months, but get a ton of new fans, reviews, and higher rankings which push lots of sales, or earn nothing for three months because your books aren’t available.”