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Music wars: how Taylor Swift took on Apple and won

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 29 June 2015, 14:04 IST

When the queen of revenge pop - Taylor Swift - speaks, Apple listens. The fact that the world's biggest company was brought to its knees after the star's show of force on a social media platform this weekend only demonstrates her power over both the music industry and the internet.

By now you're probably aware that Apple recently announced its new subscription music streaming service - meant to compete with Spotify, Rhapsody, Tidal and Deezer. Apple Music, they said, would come with a three-month free trial following the launch.

But during those first three months while the trial period is, Apple will be withholding royalties from the artists who sign on.

Obviously this pissed a lot of people off, because that's an inexplicably cunning move for a company recently ballyhooed as the most profitable company ever.

For a nearly trillion-dollar company to be penny-pinching is ridiculous. Swift agrees.

'And baby, we've got bad blood'

In a letter (read: nuke) posted Sunday morning to her Tumblr page, called 'To Apple, Love Taylor', 25-year-old Swift addressed the situation that had begun to send ripples through the music industry.

Swift, who last year famously pulled her music from Spotify, called Apple's policy "shocking, disappointing and completely unlike this historically progressive company."

For a nearly trillion-dollar company like Apple to be penny-pinching is ridiculous. Swift agrees

"We don't ask you for free iPhones," she added. "Please don't ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation."

Swift, who raked in $64 million last year, isn't exactly the broke and upcoming artist she's fighting for. However, she said she would hold back her massive album 1989 from Apple Music due to unjust compensation for artists, and that the company should be ashamed for forcing her to do so.

A Swift reversal

It was a strategic masterstroke. With nearly 60 million followers and the top-selling album of both 2014 and 2015 behind her, even Apple couldn't look past her calls for action.

Less than 24 hours after she published her open letter, Apple yielded. Boom. Taylor Swift 1; Apple 0.

If you're still not convinced about how much pull Swift has, consider Senior Vice President of Internet Services and Software Eddy Cue's direct reaction to her letter, which he shared with the Associated Press, "When I woke up this morning and I saw Taylor's note that she had written, it really solidified that we needed to make a change."

On Monday, after Apple publicly announced their change of policy via Twitter, Swift tweeted:

'Won't stop movin'

What made Apple cave so quickly? What would it mean for Apple Music to lose out on Swift's 1989?

If she had deprived Apple Music access to 1989 - which would, undoubtedly, have led to other artists following suit - Apple Music would have had to launch without one of last year's biggest-selling records.

The album sold nearly 1.3 million copies in the US alone in its first week of its release last October. It's now approaching nine million sales worldwide.

Overall, Swift's five studio albums have sold 40 million copies globally.

Since 2006, 60 songs have been charted on the Billboard Hot 100. Blank Space, her latest hit, took the top spot in November only to displace her other hit tune Shake It Off.

The seven-time Grammy winner was most recently named Billboard's 2014 Woman of the Year for the second time in her career; a feat no other artist has achieved. The award goes to a female artist who "has shaped and inspired the music industry with her success, leadership and innovation over the past twelve months."

It seems that being perceived as artist-unfriendly is something Cue recognised needed to be tackled before any real damage could be done.

In retrospect, if one were to reread Swift's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from a year ago, where she argued that the record industry had erred by giving music for free on streaming platforms like Spotify, you can see how it marked a turning point for the industry. She wrote that the future of music would be saved by the ability of a star to make millions of real friendships:

"There are always going to be those artists who break through on an emotional level and end up in people's lives forever."

'Never miss a beat'

So what is music worth?

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, streaming income, which includes paid subscriptions and ad earnings, accounted for 27% of the recording industry's $6.85 billion earnings in 2014.

A couple of months ago, Spotify became worth more than the entire US recorded music industry when it succeeded in securing $400 million in fresh funding.

This put the company's value up to a net $8.4 billion. Pandora, its nearest competitor, sits at around $3.5 billion.

Even Billboard started counting individual streams and song downloads as album sales six months ago. The best example of this is when Swift re-released the song Bad Blood with a verse from Kendrick Lamar during the 2015 Billboard awards. The song topped the Billboard 100 list that week. It's even got 235 million hits on YouTube.

The sales from that single recharted that album and slammed Swift into music money heaven all over again.

'Lightning on my feet'

In 2012, in a piece titled 'The Secret Genius of Taylor Swift', Planet Money reported that Swift and her team know the best way to release an album: by only choosing avenues and outlets that would give her the most money for every album sold.

Basically, those are outlets that push for a full album purchase.

Swift's recent moves have established her as a feminist, lobbyist and sharp marketer who can't be ignored

The first week any of her albums come out, you can only get it in a few key places: iTunes, Walgreens, Walmart, Target. "You could order a Papa John's pizza and receive the CD - at the sticker price of around $14," Money Control reported.

But more important than the tools Swift did use are the ones she didn't. In refusing to release her music on Spotify, or for that matter, any other streaming site, she managed to push her fans into buy the album.

'Shake it off'

Swift's been having a busy year. Apart from 'Taylurking' her fans, donating money to those in need and sending Christmas presents to her fans, she also bought up the rights to porn sites taylorswift.adult and taylorswift.porn to keep them out of the hands of enjoyers of XXX-content.

Apple wasn't the only brand she took on, either. On Saturday, she gutted OK! Magazine for a headline that implied she was pregnant. It referred to her, in the first sentence of its article, as 'Harry Styles' ex-girlfriend'.

It was as though her brief tryst with the One Direction star marked the height of her professional accomplishments.

"This misleading headline and your choice of words in labelling me are why we need feminism in 2015," she tweeted at the tabloid. The smackdown went viral quickly.

'Never go out of style'

Her music cred was established a while ago; what Swift's recent moves have done are to establish her as a feminist, lobbyist and sharp marketer who can't be ignored.

The tech industry's battles are famously contentious. Solutions? May just be Swift ones.

First published: 23 June 2015, 19:57 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.