Taylor Swift and the New Kinder, Gentler Apple


Unless you live in an impenetrable concrete bunker and have no contact with the outside world, you know what happened between Taylor Swift and Apple last week.

In case you missed it, in a Tumbler post called “To Apple, Love Taylor,“ the country music star took the Silicon Valley company to task for deciding not to pay artists during Apple Music’s free 3-month trial period and said she would withhold her latest album “1989” from the new streaming music service.

Then Apple did what Apple never does. It flip-flopped. Apple SVP Eddy Cue tweeted, “#AppleMusic will pay artist for streaming, even during customer’s free trial period,” then added, “We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists. Love, Apple.”

Swift responded that she was “elated and relieved” and did her own about face, agreeing to stream her hit album on Apple’s service after all. Everyone lived happily ever after. The End.

Since we all love an epic David vs. Goliath battle, especially one where a 25-year old singer/songwriter crushes the most powerful tech giant on earth, the media had a field day.

Indeed, the media did what it does best – creating drama out of thin air. And it worked. Swift’s improbable conquest of the nation’s number one music retailer was the top news of the week. But, in my opinion, that’s not exactly what happened. It just doesn’t pass the smell test.

Apple’s reversal was far more likely the result of several factors, most notably that today’s Apple is not your father’s Apple. In many ways, it’s not Steve Jobs’ Apple, either.

If you think back to the iPhone 4 antennagate crisis, the company did make things right with users, but only after Jobs denied it was a real problem. In a press conference, he called out competitors’ “reception problems” and told users to “avoid holding it in that way.” Less defensiveness and more genuine humility would have gone a long way.

Not only is this a new kinder, gentler Apple, this Apple also makes mistakes. Of course the old Apple did too, but this one handles them as it should: by owning up to the problem, making things right and letting everyone move on. Perhaps that’s just Crisis Management 101, but it’s a big step for the Cupertino, Calif.-based company.

Another factor is Apple’s extraordinary relationship with the music business. Remember it was a music player and service – iPod and iTunes – that marked the company’s initial foray beyond computing and into consumer electronics. That led to iPhone, iPad and the company’s remarkable rise to the top of the corporate world.

While I doubt if Apple Music will have anywhere near that kind of impact, in this business, you simply never know. Why tempt fate with a black eye right out of the gate when, unlike Spotify, Apple can afford to be generous with artists without suffering material impact to its bottom line.

Then you’ve got to look at the way Ms. Swift presented her case. She respectfully acknowledged Apple’s innovative role in the music industry. She stated this isn’t about her but about independent artists who simply can’t afford to go three months without royalties.

Lastly – and this is big in negotiating strategy – she gave Apple an out, “with all due respect, it’s not too late to change this policy,” she wrote. “We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

Frankly, it was a beautifully crafted argument presented in a way that I’m sure resonated as strongly with Cue as it did with many of us. It’s all too easy to think of Apple as a corporate behemoth when, in reality, every decision is made by an individual. If I were Cue, this decision was a no-brainer, a win-win with virtually no downside.

There are also a couple of less likely explanations. An associate suggested that Apple may be learning from Mark Zuckerberg’s modus operandi known as “The Hacker Way: Move fast and break things.” Facebook is notorious for implementing controversial policies and then reversing course after users revolt.

As for the Taylor Truthers who think the whole thing was a publicity stunt, all I have to say is, really? Really?

Full disclosure, I have a personal thing for 1989. It may have been the year Swift was born, but it was also the year I got married. Yes, I know I’m old. Don’t remind me.