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Why Taylor Swift vs Apple is different from Metallica vs Napster

Metal Injection supremo Robert Pasbani posted an interesting take on the Taylor Swift vs Apple Music debacle which unfolded over the weekend , comparing it to Metallica’s takedown of Napster in 2000.

The Napster lawsuit did untold damage to Metallica. It was a PR disaster which has permanently tarnished the band’s image in the eyes of many. On the contrary, Taylor Swift’s reputation has been bolstered, and she has been widely praised for speaking out against Apple’s plans.

Pasbani does make a strong point. The main argument put forward by Swift in her open letter to Apple  is identical to that brought forward by Metallica during the Napster saga: artists need to get paid.

As Swift puts it, “This is about the new artist or band that have just released their first single and will not be paid for its success.”

Compare this to Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich’s testimony back in 2000: “The argument I hear a lot, that “music should be free,” must then mean that musicians should work for free. Nobody else works for free. Why should musicians?

The wording is different, but the sentiment is clearly the same. So why were Metallica vilified and painted as greedy villains, whilst Taylor Swift is being hailed as a hero and saviour of the music industry? 

The answer, I think, lies in a number of key differences in context, approach and historical background.

Let’s take a step back.

It all started on June 8 2015, when Apple unveiled Apple Music – its attempt to make inroads in the music streaming market. Everyone knows Apple of course. Its customer base is massive and the iTunes store ubiquitous. The clincher, however, is an introductory offer whereby new subscribers will benefit from a free three month trial period, after which they will be charged a competitively-priced monthly fee.

What Apple failed to reveal was its plan to set off the loss in revenue during the free three month trial by not paying any royalties to rights holders. Effectively, a huge corporation worth hundreds of billions of dollars was expecting artists to absorb its losses whilst it built its new business venture into a profit-making revenue stream. Even worse, Apple’s failure to disclose its intentions strongly suggests bad faith.

Similarly, Napster was a corporation which, at the time of the lawsuit, had an estimated net worth running into the tens of millions of dollars. The service it offered was however quite different.

Apple Music is a streaming service, whilst Napster was a peer-to-peer file-sharing platform. This might seem like nit-picking, given that the bottom line in both cases was that artists were not getting paid for their work, but it really isn’t. The difference in the nature of the two services, I think, had a crucial impact on public perception.

A music streaming service allows subscribers all-you-can-eat, on-demand access to music in exchange for a revenue-generating monthly fee. The streaming service’s bottom line is to have enough paying subscribers to turn a profit. In turn, it pays royalties to rights holders for allowing their music to be streamed by the service. So Apple’s intention not to pay royalties during a three month trial period was essentially an egregious attempt by a huge, rich corporation to offload losses generated by its marketing ploys onto unwitting artists.

On the other hand, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service is simply a platform which facilitates the exchange of data between private users. All music files remained on users’ personal computers at all times, and download was only possible via a third-party program called MusicShare, which indexed users’ hard drives and then communicated with Napster’s servers. It was entirely up to the users to decide which music they made available for download.

This is why Metallica were perceived as having effectively sued their own fans. In a way, when Metallica took legal action against Napster they acted much like the asshole neighbour who shuts down your favourite hangout spot. He may be perfectly correct and well within his legal rights, but it’s still going to be viewed as a dick move.


Which brings us to the second important difference between the two cases: approach.

Metallica’s reaction was to sic their lawyers on Napster, making impossible demands such as 100% copyright-filtering accuracy and suing them into oblivion. They essentially bullied Napster into the ground.

Compare this to Swift, who took to her personal Tumblr blog to write an open letter to Apple in which she voiced her concerns. The end result is the same, but her approach was far more subtle. Rather than using legal action, Swift sought public approval. In the end, the threat of PR backlash was real enough to make Apple change tack.

Metallica’s status at the time did not help. A haircut and two albums called Load and Re-Load had just alienated many of their core fans. Whether the accusations of selling-out were justified is a separate debate which goes beyond the scope of this piece. The point here is that many at the time perceived Metallica as having sacrificed their artistic integrity at the altar of commercial success. Given this perception, many would have been predisposed to interpret the Napster lawsuit as another money-grab. Their heavy-handed approach and the fact that their most annoying member was the face of their crusade were the final nails in the coffin.

Swift, on the other hand, cleverly side-stepped this pitfall by saying that “This is not about me.” but about new artists struggling to make a living in the industry.  With that simple statement, she tackled the elephant in the room head on. Besides, everybody loves an underdog, so her arguments inevitably resonated with many and led to widespread support.

Swift’s approach, of course, would not have been possible without the power of social media behind her. Social media as we know it today simply did not exist at the time of the Napster saga. This does not mean, however, that Metallica couldn’t have explored other ways of protecting their rights instead of whipping out the jackhammer.

Finally, the effect of the vastly different landscape in 2000 and 2015 on public perception cannot be discounted.

In 2000, we had yet to see the changes which would alter the music industry forever. Record sales were still relatively strong and the old business model was alive and well. The internet as we know it today was still a fledgling industry. Metallica, the multi-platinum selling act, were Goliath. Napster, the trailblazing internet upstart, was David. Millionaire rock stars whining about losing revenue to some fresh-faced college kids never stood a chance in this particular popularity contest.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the backdrop is considerably different. The music industry, slow and reluctant to adapt to change, continues to suffer crushing blows to its bottom line. Digital streaming is the only revenue stream showing consistent growth, whilst physical record sales and even digital downloads are in an unstoppable downward spiral.

Meanwhile, industry-standard recording technology is widely available at affordable prices, enabling more musicians than ever before to self-produce their own music at a fraction of the cost. Competition remains fierce – perhaps even fiercer than ever before – but the financial rewards are minimal and constantly dwindling. The internet has become Goliath and our loyalties have inevitably shifted.

Admittedly, Metallica were penalised for being forward looking and taking action long before anyone else had the balls to do so. Taylor Swift, on the other hand, stood up to Apple at a time when it is perfectly safe to do so. This is a fair point, but forms only a small part of the puzzle. The fact remains that Metallica picked the wrong battle and used up what little good-will they had at the time completely mishandling the affair. If anything, the Napster saga is a lesson in the merits of taking a step back and thinking things through before going for the jugular.

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