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Can Taylor Swift’s Apple Victory Really Save the Music Industry?

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I don’t hate Taylor Swift.

As far as her music goes, I can’t say it’s moved me really. Although, I have shaken it off on a few occasions. As a forty-something working mom, pop music is not a priority (unless it’s a duet with Elmo), and truthfully, it just isn’t all that relatable anymore.

We sing cheery folk songs to our daughter at bedtime—the same ones my dad sang to me when I was a little girl. We’re also steeping our daughter in Edith Piaf’s collection. The Velvet Underground. Bjork. Howlin’ Wolf. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Fela Kuti. I assume when she’s old enough to buy her own music she’ll be the one teaching me about artists who were influenced by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus. Well, that is, if artists are making music for sale anymore.

And this is where Taylor Swift—regardless of whether or not we’re fans of hers—has just made history.

If you haven’t heard by now, Ms. Swift penned an open letter to Apple on her Tumblr page (“To Apple, Love Taylor”). The letter, I imagine, if handwritten, might have come on pink paper with scented ink and adorned with pretty stickers.

In her sweet-yet-fiercely-confident way, Ms. Swift explained to the mega-technology corporation why she’d be withholding her album “1989” from the new streaming Apple Music service, just as she did with Spotify. The reason, she explained, is the program’s three month free trial period (for consumers) won’t pay artists who are streamed during that time. Ms. Swift says, and many agree with her, this is unfair to artists who are considerably less profitable than Ms. Swift herself. As she explains:

This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. 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.

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.

Some critics are calling Ms. Swift’s bluff on this—that her motive is more selfish than it is in solidarity with lesser-known artists. While she insists she is able to pay herself and her massive staff, certainly she wouldn’t be taking this stand if she didn’t have concerns over the long-term viability of selling music. She may be transparent, but she has a point.

And it seems, Apple has listened.

Apple’s senior VP of internet services, Eddy Cue, spoke with Ms. Swift over the phone after her blog went viral and told her, in essence, that Apple would be immediately changing its policy and paying artists during that trial period. This is kind of huge.

Not only does it cement Ms. Swift’s power as a voice for her generation (Proof we’ve evolved: nasaly-awkward-looking-kinda-grumpy Bob Dylan was the voice of his generation just fifty years ago. You can suddenly see the parallels between “Blowing in the Wind” and “Shake it Off’, right?), but it also validates the struggles of real musicians, those who are often willing to give away their music for free in hopes that sooner or later, it will help them earn a livable salary doing what they love.

I know quite a few people in the music business (my writing career actually started at a world music magazine). Most of them don’t make very much money at it. Some of them have other jobs while making music when they can. Some prefer to live with less so they can make music full time.

According to author, professor and a failed professional musician himself, Timothy Caufield says the average musician makes about $7,000 a year (in Canada), “that is less than half the amount the Canadian government has set as the poverty line for single people and thousands less than the average income threshold for poverty for single people in the United States,” he wrote in his latest book “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health Beauty and Happiness”. There are no all-night hotel room parties for most working musicians—more like unrelenting touring, usually in cramped, hot vans, and lots of couch and floor sleeping. Caufield says that according to music industry expert Moses Avalon, more than 40,000 submissions go to major music labels annually, with only about two thousand of those ever being offered record deals. And just because a musician or band gets a record deal doesn’t mean they’re going to sell a significant amount of records. Those chances are significantly slim, especially in today’s low-record-sales music industry.

But as any artist knows, to limit self-expression by say, having a day job, can be more painful than skipping a meal because the budget won’t allow for it. Starving for art may be the only legitimate reason for starving in this world.

Taylor Swift may never have had to experience this type of sacrifice herself, but that doesn’t matter anymore. What does matter is she’s helping to remind us that most musicians do struggle to work, struggle to provide us with this quintessential facet of the human experience. And even if Ms. Swift’s motivations are transparent, it’s still something worth recognzing.

The point is we really don’t know where the music industry is going—it’s scary and a little bit exciting at the same time. But like Ms. Swift has reminded us, music has tremendous value. It’s critical to the human spirit, to help us make sense of and participate in the world around us. And that is worth something–anything–even if it’s just a few pennies for a few months while Apple tries to steal Spotify customers. Music is a craft, yes, but it’s also a legitimate service like any other we willingly pay for. Just try to imagine a world without it.

Find Jill on Twitter and Instagram

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Image: Eva Rinaldi

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