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When a (Taylor) Swift kick got to an image-sensitive Apple

Technically Incorrect: How could Apple justify not paying royalties during the three-month trial period of its new music-streaming service? In the end, it couldn't.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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She wasn't happy. Taylor Swift/Vevo screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

There's a new Apple.

It's the one that fights for social justice. It's the one that is more self-deprecatory. It's the one whose CEO is defending privacy in terms of morality.

This is a company that has taken quite some heat in the past because those in China who make its phones get paid a pittance and sometimes aren't treated humanely.

Yet Apple seemed to want artists to work for free to help get its new streaming-music service off the ground when it debuts next week.

The free trial period is three months, and it was looking as though in that time no artist would get royalties, until Apple's senior VP of Internet Services, Eddy Cue, had a change of heart on Sunday. (After the freebie runs its course, Apple Music will cost you $10 a month.)

How odd, though, that it took pop singer Taylor Swift to point out how very un-Apple this was.

In announcing earlier Sunday that she would withhold her new album, "1989," from Apple Music, Swift didn't even bother to be as caustic as she is in some songs about her exes. In a Tumblr post she was both angry and at times curiously deferential toward the Colossus of Cupertino.

You can see that mixture of emotions in less than a dozen words describing the non-payment of royalties as "shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company."

That was surely the whole point. This wasn't what you'd expect from Apple. Image-wise, that is.

You can talk the factual nuances if you like, as Apple executive Robert Kondrk did with Recode recently. He said that in the US Apple will pay 71.5 percent of its subscription revenue in royalties (outside the US, it'll average around 73 percent), higher than the 70 percent that Spotify pays.

But wasn't the real issue one that has depressed many an industry since the Web made everything so easy that no one wanted to pay for services? Apple was asking those who create the tunes to comp it for a three-month gig.

It's the same as writers in the media being asked to work for free because they will get so many people looking at their work.

Some might argue that as this music service is from Apple, it's bound to succeed. But can it really be true that paying at least something during this trial period would have been beyond Apple's monstrous coffers? Didn't it seem petty for a company that has gilded swimming pools full of money all around the world, or so I should imagine, to insist that artists should perform a three-month free trial too?

Hey, Taylor. You've got five nights at the Garden, but we won't pay you for the first one because we want to see how loudly people applaud.

Of course, those trousering some of the ultimate money won't be artists, but record labels. Should we feel sorry for them too? Probably not. They negotiated the Apple deal with open pockets. At least the larger labels did. Swift claimed to be standing up for the smaller labels.

Still, at a time when people seem to believe recorded music is worth (next to) nothing, Apple had done something very un-Apple: it actually offered something for free. That, in itself, suggests a certain nervousness.

It suggests that the company couldn't find an idea that people would think worth paying for from the beginning. It suggests that Apple knows it's relying on nothing more than its brand image and a free offer to entice customers. It's the sort of thing a soap powder manufacturer might try.

In expecting artists to shoulder the burden of the freebie there was a certain callousness, one that is entirely opposed to the company's image under CEO Tim Cook.

It took Taylor Swift, princess of musical justice, to point that out. Which then made Apple realize that this wasn't so much a commercial faux-pas as an image zit-on-face.

I've reached out to Apple for insights into its thinking, and will update, should I hear.

Some have jested that if Steve Jobs were still alive, he'd have immediately retaliated and excised Swift from the iTunes store.

That isn't Tim Cook's Apple. This new Apple is prepared to admit its mistakes. It's also prepared to polish its image when social media starts barking.