Taylor Swift and App Development

Posted on June 21, 2015

If you had asked me yesterday which Swift would be the topic of conversation among iOS and Mac developers today, I would have put money on it being the programming language and not the music star. And I would have been wrong, because Taylor Swift set the world of Apple watchers abuzz today by airing complaints about Apple’s new Apple Music service on her blog. In her post she lays out a well-reasoned argument that Apple Music’s payment policy is unfair to artists since creators aren’t compensated for listens by Apple’s customers during a three month trial period. As a result, she explains, she will not be releasing her newest album on the service. After reading Swift’s post and the resulting banter on the Internet, it’s tempting to dismiss the entire argument with some handwaving. “Of course Apple’s payments are unfair to creators. The entire music industry is built on exploiting creators. So get over it, because it’s a better deal than you’ll get from anyone else.” But forward thinking developers should take notice, because this controversy may hit closer to home than they expect.

First, no one is saying that Apple is doing anything legally wrong. They negotiated a contract with terms that are favorable to them. That’s what big companies do. And Apple will have every legal right to stream most artists’ music without compensation during that three month trial. So no one – not even Taylor Swift – is saying that Apple is breaking any laws. What Swift is saying, and what I agree with, is that it’s a bad deal for artists. Creators should be compensated for the use of their creations.

This debate is important to app developers because, whether we like it or not, digital music has been devalued – just as our digital creations have been. In just a few short years people have gone from paying tens of dollars for an album, to paying 99 cents for a single track, to paying pennies or even nothing to stream an entire library of music. This parallels in a rather frightening way the history of the App Store where, in an even shorter amount of time, mobile software that once sold for tens of dollars now is lucky to sell for 99 cents. Just as the music industry, now including Apple, has moved to an “all-you-can-eat” subscription model to bring down the per title cost of music below that 99 cent threshold, it now doesn’t seem unreasonable that a similar all-you-can-eat subscription model might be used to allow per title pricing of apps to fall below 99 cents as well1.

I think that such an all-you-can-eat subscription deal would be disastrous for indie developers, but a full explanation of my reasons for that belief is more than I want to tackle today. Today what I want to point out is that this fight for fair compensation is not just a fight for musicians. It’s a fight for software developers as well. Apple is a great negotiator, and the company will take everything that it thinks it can get away with. Our problem as developers is that we’re in an even worse position than a lot of musicians. Musicians at least have alternate channels for their work. iOS developers only have one – the App Store. Mac developers who distribute solely through the App Store are in a similar position. If you don’t think that Apple would impose similarly unfavorable terms upon its developers when it’s Apple that holds all the cards, you’re fooling yourself.

So if you are a developer who thinks that apps may one day be subject to a similar all-you-can-eat pricing model, it’s in your interest to lend your voice in support of Swift’s argument, because the terms under which musicians work may one day be the model for the terms under which you work as well. Tweet about it. Tell your friends. Lend your voice in support of the notion that digital creations have value for which their creators should be compensated. And after you’ve done that, start investigating ways to strengthen your own position. If you’re an iOS developer, start looking at ways to take your app to Android. If you’re a Mac developer, investigate Windows. And everyone should probably be looking at web-based software as a service. Start making plans now for a day when you might have to bravely say “No” to a bad deal, just as Taylor Swift has done.

  1. Credit to Dave Wiskus for first putting this idea in my head. https://twitter.com/dwiskus/status/607977149560033281