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Apple's reversal shows that Apple Music really can think different

Jesse von Doom | June 24, 2015
Independent labels make up the bulk of the music industry, and it's to Apple's advantage to keep them happy.

There are plenty of arguments why a strong user base is best for artists in the long term, but to sacrifice a full quarter's pay is a big thing to ask anyone, and Apple was asking a field of mostly middle-class working musicians to take that pay cut. On top of that, they're changing the way Apple approaches music, and for many in that group iTunes is a lifeline, providing regular income from a service that pays on time. Will download sales remain constant with a free all-you-can-stream buffet sitting right next to that Buy button?

A Swift solution

Taylor Swift wasn't just talking about holding out her own 1989 album, she was giving a voice to all the independent artists and labels who weren't going to sign the deal offered them. Because of distribution deals with major label-owned companies that require digital rights in order to get physical product to retail, many independent labels didn't have a say whether their catalog would be part of Apple Music. In many cases, those deals are different country to country. So while Apple wasn't facing a hole to the tune of 35 percent of recorded music, it was looking at unhappy artists and a significantly reduced catalog inconsistent from country to country. 

Last Friday, Apple put the hard sell to rights-holders who had yet to sign a deal. It was to be the last day possible to sign and still be featured in the new service. There was no compromise on the three unpaid months. There was no reassurance or information about plans for download sales versus streaming. This was a different kind of Apple than independents were used to, and they didn't like it.

Apple was stuck in a corner, and Taylor Swift gave them a fantastic way out.

Listen to the artists

What's alarming is that Apple hasn't historically been a company that ignored independent artists. To see a community of labels and artists all pull together and collectively say "this isn't right" only to be ignored until the largest independent artist on the planet says something? That doesn't feel like Apple thinking different.

For Apple Music to succeed, Apple will need to listen to artists and labels of all sizes. The company did this with at advent of iTunes, and it provided a lifeline for musicians at a time when it seemed there was little hope. It hasn't been a great start for the future of music at Apple, but there's time. 

Apple can do great things if it treats this as a partnership with artists rather than a gatekeeper to rule all gatekeepers. Most streaming services are unimaginative, but the one that listens to artists and builds a future for them as well as itself can change everything. This isn't about catalog size, or even scale, but about building an open platform where artists can truly connect to their audience and thrive.

 

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