Apple Music pays higher royalties than competitors like Spotify because there's no free option; you have to pay $9.99 a month to use it. But to entice consumers into signing up, Apple's offering a three-month free trial, and artists like Swift weren't going to see any money during those three months…Swift posted an open letter to her Tumblr saying she would withhold her album…17 hours later Apple's Eddy Cue apologized on Twitter and completely backtracked…Applause and retweets all around.
Both Swift and Apple seem to have come out relatively unscathed: the move is being heralded by pundits like VC Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz as part of the so-called "New Apple" that I discussed last week. Swift on the other hand appears as David to Apple's Goliath.
Frankly this incident showcases in Swift and others what I described previously in Critical Sharks: Fear of Apple, a total unwillingness to provide unadulterated critique. Instead, her criticism necessarily came couched in excessive flattery. Let us examine Swift's critique, innocently penned as a love letter:
Apple has been and will continue to be one of my best partners…I respect the company and the truly ingenious minds that have created a legacy based on innovation and pushing the right boundaries…afraid to speak up publicly because we admire and respect Apple so much…this historically progressive and generous company…I say this with love, reverence, and admiration for everything else Apple has done…just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field.
Yet Swift was not alone in handling Apple with kid gloves. The co-creator and CTO of Pandora, Tom Conrad, felt the need to note his credentials in order to criticize: "I worked at the company for 5 years. I love apple as much as anyone."
Conrad nonetheless went on to provide some incredibly cogent criticism of both Swift and Apple, explaining:
Reminder: Apple uses music to make billions off hardware. Artists see nothing from this. Swift's letter and Apple's response is mostly theater. Nothing here to suggest Apple treats artists more fairly than anyone else…We shouldn't herald this move as progress. It's status quo.
The parallels between musicians and developers are here plain to see. Brian S. Hall points out:
Not paying artists wasn’t a misstep, nor prioritizing short-term margins. It’s — pay attention: core Apple strategy! Apple makes all its money, and Apple makes more money than anyone else in the world, from hardware.
However, not all among the Apple faithful are convinced. In light of the news between Swift and Apple, one reader of iMore asked pundit Rene Ritchie the following question: "Have u ever had an inkling of a thought that Apple might be at fault, for anything?" Ritchie's reply: "I blame them for generations of really sub-standard mice. That count?" Ritchie was, of course, joking. He's been responsible for significant critique in the past. However his response well-encapsulates much of Apple news coverage today.
The "New Apple" and Developers
The cordial manner with which Swift handled Apple was matched by the quick response by Apple's Vice President of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue. In an unprecedented and informal fashion, on a Sunday evening, Cue responded to Swift via Twitter: "We hear you Taylor Swift and indie artists. Love, Apple." He continued, "Apple will always make sure that artist [sic] are paid."
Apple's near-immediate response to Swift was noticed by the tech community: Aaron Levie of Box remarked the following: "In < 24 hours, using only Twitter & Tumblr, Apple and Taylor Swift resolved what used to take 6 months to negotiate." According to Peter Kafka of Re/code, Apple "spent months hammering out deal points with Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music," yet within hours of receiving Swift's request, they capitulated.
Nilay Patel was baffled at just how unheard of this sort of response was: "Not even a press release, or even a wait-for-it joint statement. Just complete walkback. What happened behind the scenes here?" We may never know why Apple responded as they did, but surely investors are concerned that the public now perceives Apple as being able to have their policies be influenced, let alone dictated to, by a single musician.
Apple's impulsive response to Swift stands in stark contrast to their treatment of indie app developers, who have been lobbying Apple for almost seven years, requesting Apple reform policies in the App Store to no effect. In particular, Cue's use of the word "indie" can only be described as a callous slap in the face given the circumstances that indie developers have been facing.
Developer reactions have been mixed: Daniel Jalkut of MarsEdit exclaimed, "Damn, I wish Taylor Swift were also a Mac App Store developer." Cabel Sasser rightly pointed out that complaints by developers have and will likely continue to be ignored: "As if ANY of us nerds have 1/100000th the public perception pull of a Taylor Swift."
Developer David Barnard pointed out the utter inconsistency here between music and app development: "Apple is subsidizing a 90 day free trial for Music, but there’s still a rule in the App Review Guidelines prohibiting timed trials for apps." In other words, musicians complain that they will not get paid—Apple immediately subsidizes them. Developers on the other hand do not even have the option of using that marketing strategy. Wil Shipley noted "indie developers used to make ~50% of our revenue by giving discounted upgrades to existing customers. Apple blew this away."
Rene Ritchie enumerated three lessons musicians and developers should take from the Swift affair: 1. Apple considers 90 free trial essential. 2. Apple can pivot in less than a day. 3. Apple will engage on social." All of these are quite true, so long as you are the world's most famous musician.
Dave Wiskus of Vesper took a similarly optimistic approach in his love letter, To Taylor, Love Dave: "Apple is pretty good at taking care of the people that power its ecosystem. Sure, there are complaints about things like app review times." Wiskus misses the mark here: App Review is not even a fraction of the problem. Wiskus would later claim that he was responsible for Apple's concession: "I’m glad me and Taylor Swift could make Eddy Cue see reason." Wiskus remarked that perhaps Swift's easygoing letter "ensures that we get a better deal when app streaming shows up in a few years." As of yet, there is hardly any indication that this will happen. Unfortunately, the opportunity to find out whether we might be seeing improved prospects for app development just slipped through our fingers.
Feet to the Fire
Last week, in discussing the question of the arrival of a "New Apple", I recounted the famous Gruber-Schiller interview on John Gruber's podcast The Talk Show. In the latest episode, Gruber's guest, Guy English, admitted of Schiller's performance, "As forthcoming as he (Schiller) was, he didn't say anything counter to the messaging of Apple. He's very good at his job." In essence, Schiller gave what was to be expected: non-answers to most questions.
During the interview with Schiller, Gruber touched on Apple's problems with privacy, discoveryd, and software quality, among other things. Gruber felt that he "held his (Schiller's) feet to the fire" by bringing up these issues. All these topics are quite important, but the real "elephant in the room" (Schiller's words) was not Marco Arment, it was App Store sustainability and developer relations.
Indeed, according to Gruber, in the days since the live interview with Schiller, readers and listeners told him that above all else they wish he had touched on App Store sustainability during the live interview. Gruber explained, "One of the reasons I didn't [ask about it] is there's nothing really new about it and I kind of wanted to focus a little bit more on current events. And the other thing too is once you open that can of worms, that's hard to do in just a couple minutes." He continued, "I had to decide what not to ask…you can't go more than 60 minutes."
App development sustainability is hardly old news. More importantly, this is a huge missed opportunity. There are few figures as prominent and respected as Gruber who could have asked these questions. Even if Schiller had given more non-answers regarding the App Store and treatment of developers, it would have made for quite the comparison given Apple's soon to come concession to Swift over Apple Music.
Taking a Page from Musicians' Playbook
The most pathetic part of this whole kerfuffle is that app developers are now pining for the sway that musicians hold, a group that, on the whole, is hardly in an enviable position. Federico Vittici of MacStories laments, "If only there could be live shows for app developers too."
Surely any business benefits from diversifying its sources of revenue, but most musicians do live shows out of necessity, not by choice. Musician and designer Dylan Seeger eloquently speaks to this:
Most musicians play countless shows to bartenders, sound engineers, and virtually empty bars. Touring is only an option for those who already have the money that comes with a big following, unless a musician risks going into deep debt. Imagine telling a developer to spend 3+ years on an app, give it away for free, and then travel the country in a bus selling t-shirts, hoping that they eventually make up for the thousands of hours and dollars they've spent on the project.
The real problem, as I see it, is that companies are pushing for the norm to be a business model that only works for the big stars. And unfortunately, they’ve already succeeded. There’s no money in streaming for artists, but now there’s also no choice. It’s already become what listeners expect.
It is worth noting that this entire affair has led to a massive amount of free publicity that otherwise would not have come to Apple. Swift's genius was that she claimed to represent indie artists in her seemingly populist plea. Swift is in fact one of the most lucrative forces in the music industry. Joe Cieplinski of Bombing Brain Interactive argues correctly the disingenuous nature of Swift's love letter:
Indies know that streaming is a bum deal, financially. Only a fool would expect Apple Music to be your ticket out of debt. And she (Swift) knows that…Sad to think that this red herring will be enough to placate all the complainers. It’s still a terrible deal for indie musicians….But no doubt, everyone will shut up now, once they’ve congratulated Taylor Swift on winning a victory for the little people.
Indie developers should heed the warning. They are hardly in a better a position here than many musicians.