Tuesday, June 23, 2015

If There Were No Taylor Swift

What if there were no Taylor Swift and no one to watch out for the integrity of the music business?

Okay, quit laughing. It really is possible to put integrity, music, and business in the same sentence. Let me show you what I mean.

Suppose Apple Music had gone ahead with its original plan not to pay recording artists for its initial 13-week free trial period. Thirteen weeks is a long time in popular music, as Swift noted, and if she wouldn’t really notice the loss of one season of income, a new band having its first big hit during this period would be ruined. Thirteen weeks is long enough for a single like “I Want It That Way” or “We Will Rock You” to capture the public’s imagination, sell a million copies, then fade from attention. Not many singles, even among the most successful, stay on the record charts for as long as 13 weeks.

So what happens to a band that has the misfortune of having its breakthrough hit during the free trial period, so that instead of making half a million dollars from its hit, enough to pay back the money borrowed to record the album and promote the single, the band earns almost nothing? The band could literally be bankrupt as a result.

Of course, it’s possible that such a band could get a second chance after the trial period is over, but history doesn’t speak kindly about their prospects. Statistically, the unpaid Apple Music trial period would have brutally cut short the music careers of half a dozen promising recording artists.

The damage wouldn’t stop there. People in the record business don’t really want to see the careers of the musicians in their charge wiped out, so they would have withheld a wide range of new records during this period, saving them for later release dates. Record companies would go ahead with releases meant to build the careers of multimillionaires, but they would tend to hold back on releases from the vast majority of recording artists who need to keep making money in order to make their next records. The result would be an entire season with little to no interesting new music. That, in turn, could have killed Apple Music. If music listeners came away from the free trial period feeling that they hadn’t heard anything new and different on Apple Music, if they saw it as the new BMG Music Service, they would be excused for deciding it was a service they could do without.

In this roundabout way, Apple Music very nearly killed its own chances of finding a place in the music business. By creating a quiet period in which there was no compelling new music to listen to, Apple Music might have had people singing, “Rock and Roll is Dead.” Yes, that’s a 1995 Lenny Kravitz single, but what else are you going to sing when there isn’t any new music in 2015? In a funny way, then, Swift just saved Apple Music from itself.

In this limited sense at least, then, there is such as thing as integrity in the music business. The structural incentives in the business can lead to the ongoing creation and distribution of music, or it can work against it. It is a tough challenge for any subscription service to do its part to keep content creation going, but at least with its U-turn on trial period royalties, Apple Music has a chance to show that it belongs, that it is not just another corporation looking for a way to suck the life out of the music business.