Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks each took on their generation’s music bogeyman

The music business tends to repeat itself. Conversations that seem completely intertwined with new technologies mirror those over earlier developments. Read Adrian John’s Piracy, for example, and see how closely the file-sharing debate followed the one about sheet music a century earlier.

Even with that background, the parallels between Taylor Swift’s widely discussed comments about Apple Music earlier this year and Garth Brooks’ outspoken stance on used CD sales are striking. It’s hard to argue with Swift—she is, after all, a shrewd businesswoman, and who knows what the future holds—but the fact that Brooks’ fears proved so unfounded take some of the winds out of her sails. We may be at the end of history, and today’s problems might be totally unlike the ones we faced before, but probably not.

Here’s an excerpt of what Swift said about Apple’s free trial:

I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.

This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field…but will not get paid for a quarter of a year’s worth of plays on his or her songs.

And here’s a journalist from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer paraphrasing Brooks’ comments at his sold-out arena concert, a few months after announcing he would only be selling his new record at stores that did not carry used CDs.

Brooks said that because no royalties are paid on the sale of used CDs, writers, labels, publishers and artists were being cheated. He said he would only supply chains that sell used CDs with his cassettes, and hinted that he might be working on another “format” to thwart such sales.

Brooks said he does not need any money, but lesser-known artists could suffer if secondhand CD sales take off. If used CD sales were to go into massive retail, he said, it would severely affect people in the recording industry, creating a sales loop that would profit only stores but not the creators, publishers and artists.

CD retailers, meanwhile, have argued that the cost of new CDs is too high for young buyers, and that selling used CDs exposes an artist’s music to different audiences.

For both Swift and Brooks—each among the best-selling acts of their generation—an emerging marketplace that makes music more accessible—but less well-compensated—was worth speaking out about. They both note that it’s not about them, but about the principle, and that the unpaid exposure would hurt new musicians. Both point to the middleman’s profits as an obvious evil.

To my mind, both artists are mistaken about the value of exposure and discoverability. Tim O’Reilly’s observation that obscurity is a greater threat to the emerging artist than piracy remains true; it’s also true that obscurity is a greater threat than used record sales, free trials, and most everything else.

But on the other counts, too, Garth Brooks was wrong. Used CD sales didn’t undermine the music industry and they didn’t keep new artists from finding audiences.

We know this because his plan to sell only through certain CD stores failed, amidst anti-trust investigations into his record label.

Taylor Swift was, at least narrowly, right. Apple Music should’ve been paying royalties for its free trials all along. But elsewhere, her skepticism about streaming and business models that include “free” might not be well placed. Unfortunately, because music licensing in this space is fundamentally more of a permissions culture than selling plastic disks was, we may never find out.

Update: This post has been re-published on Techdirt. Thanks, Mike!