I love Taylor Swift, and I’m not afraid to admit it. It’s not just because her song “Shake It Off” accompanied me on my daily run during those tough days earlier this year when my world got infiltrated by haters. (Swift wrote the song with Max Martin and Shellback as a response to the criticism she constantly receives.) “Shake It Off” reminded me that I’m better off writing than I am worrying about people who aren’t worth my time.
Here, let me share the song. Take a listen, even if you don’t like Swift. Whenever you feel like weighing in when someone is wrong on the Internet, a listen to this might make you feel better.
But that’s not why I love Taylor Swift this week. This week, I love her because she knows she’s an 800-lb gorilla and she’s not afraid to use her status in the industry to fight for other artists.
If you run away from the mention of Taylor Swift, or you don’t listen to music news or you’re living under a rock, here’s what happened (the short version).
At the end of June, Apple will debut a new streaming service. Customers will receive the first three months free. And, on June 17, a website called Digital Music News, got their hands on the contract, and printed it in its entirety. The short lead-in to the contract points out that rights holders would receive no income during that free trial period.
That’s right. If independent artists or music labels signed with Apple’s new streaming service, then Apple would not pay them for three months, no matter how much music was downloaded.
Streaming music and royalties are a major, major issue in the music business, and this was just one more major insult. The reaction to this contract reveal happened fast and it was firm.
Organizations from Beggars Group (which handles artists like Radiohead and Adele) to the German Association of Independent Music Companies wrote official letters of complaint to Apple. So did a ton of indie music artists. I’ve been having trouble finding their names, because the media, even the independent music media, doesn’t seem to care much when indies protest.
The protests got louder and louder, with the business press picking up the news. The Business Insider even had a headline that should have sent shivers down the back of any artist considering signing with Apple’s new service: Independent labels aren’t signing up for Apple Music because they fear it will put them out of business.
No traction. None. Apple didn’t seem to pay any attention at all.
Writers should recognize this: Take it or leave it, the big publishers often say. We don’t really care.
And indie writers should also recognize this as well. Google Play is saying the same thing to writers, after tanking a bunch of bestselling books by suddenly offering them for free. Part of the terms of service lets Google set prices, after all, and Google knew that Amazon price-matched. So by making the bestsellers free, Google took revenue from Amazon and from writers. Then told writers that they can’t change the policy. Take it or leave it, suckers.
Back on the music side…
Enter Taylor Swift. All 800 lbs. of her.
Why do I love this woman? Because she knows she runs a business. She’s mentioned this before, she acts on it all the time. And this time? She decided to step into the Apple controversy—hard.
She didn’t give an interview, she wrote an open letter. You can see the full text here, and you should read it because I’m going to discuss it below.
First, though, let me give you the upshot. The moment the 800-lb gorilla and her 59.4 million Twitter followers weighed in, so did the international media—not just the business media, but everyone, from the celebrity news sites to the old-fuddy evening newscasts in the US to the major news publications. Everyone.
Suddenly, Apple seemed small, and they caved, almost immediately, citing Swift. It helped that Swift (and her people) knew how to put juicy bite-sized quotes into the letter, including this one:
We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.
Yeah, that’s the one, the one that I love. Because it encompasses exactly how an artist should approach her business partners in all relationships.
Imagine if writers took the attitude that Swift has here. I like you, she says to Apple. I love some of the things you’re doing, but what you’re asking of artists is not something you would do yourself.
Imagine if writers took the terms in a traditional publishing contract, like a do-not-compete, and demanded the same terms for their publishers. That means that publishers who want to publish a vampire romance series can’t publish any other vampire romance. See how stupid those non-competes are? Yet writers sign them all the time.
Swift addresses the fear that artists have of speaking out in this little paragraph:
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.
A lot of writers are afraid to speak publically against their publishers. Even more writers are terrified to ask to be treated like any other business person because they’re afraid they’ll get blackballed or lose what tiny deal they have or…most likely, they see themselves as “artists” and not as business people, so why should they make waves?
Swift spoke for a lot of artists, because she knew she can do so without harming her relationship with Apple. But here she’s talking about speaking publicly.
I’m talking about speaking privately. If someone offers you a deal that makes your stomach twist, apply logic. Ask yourself this:
If you reverse the request, would the company accept your demand? Like Swift and the iPhones. Would Apple give its business partners to give away free iPhones during a trial period designated by the business partners (and not pay for those phones)? Of course not. So why should artists—just because they’re artists—be any different from any other business?
The key here, people, isn’t to mistrust your business partners or even to treat them badly. It’s to treat them as equals.
And note what I’m saying: You must treat them as equals in your deal. You have to demand the respect. You do. Because no one else will.
Yes, writers do speak out for each other. But right now, in our field anyway, we don’t have 800-lb gorillas like Taylor Swift. Our biggest gorillas don’t make the national news when they sneeze. It’s a difference of scale.
So don’t expect someone else to jump into the ring for you. Your agent? (Why do you still have an agent?) Your agent has a different agenda than you do, and will often balk at negotiating something that you want. Your editor? Your editor works for the publisher. Some famous writers? They have issues of their own (and, right now, many famous writers have no clue what indie writers are going through).
Stand up for yourself. You don’t have to do it publicly. Most of the groups I cited early in this piece had already decided not to do business with Apple on the early days of the streaming service. No matter what happened, it would have hurt their revenue. (Apple is to digital music what Amazon is to digital books [in the US, anyway].) But the artists were willing to make the choice to pull out of Apple if necessary, while fighting the new policy.
You need to make hard choices for your own career.
But you also have to respect your own business.
Stand up for yourself always, always when it comes to your writing business.
Don’t accept deals that are bad for you. Just don’t. Explain why you can’t. Negotiate a better deal. If you can’t negotiate a better deal, walk away.
Yeah, sometimes it’ll cost you. Sometimes your stance will make a difference to others (like it did when Swift stepped in). Mostly, it’ll only make a difference to you.
But I’ve discovered that whenever I’ve stood up for myself and it seemed like the decision was going to hurt my bottom line, the decision ended up being the best decision I could have made.
It’s hard to see in the moment. But it becomes clear in hindsight.
Make this phrase your own. (I tweaked it for publishing and then added two more sentences.)
Please don’t ask me to provide you with my writing for no compensation.
Don’t ask me to make choices that harm my business just to help yours.
Got that? Good.
I’m back blogging, even though it’s beautiful and sunny and I want to play outside or return to my short story in progress and/or finish the audio book I’m narrating and/or keep reading on the new women in science fiction project.
I put the blog up for free, but donors are the ones who are compensating me. If there aren’t enough donors, I will take another break. Last week’s post went viral, but the donations were way down.
So…if you learned something in the past month or enjoyed this blog, please leave a tip on the way out. Thanks!
“Business Musings: Why I Love Taylor Swift,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.