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Why Apple Blinked When Taylor Swift Stared Them Down

Taylor Swift doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the underdog, but pitted against Apple, even America’s reigning pop star can play the part.

Which made it all the more startling Sunday when the Cupertino colossus quickly caved in when Swift lashed out against the terms of Apple Music’s trial period, which would have robbed artists of their royalties for songs in the new streaming service’s first three months of usage.

Hours after Swift took Tumblr with her message, Apple content chief Eddy Cue announced via Twitter that the policy was being scuttled.

When was the last time you saw Apple — or any corporation anywhere near its size, really — buckle that swiftly to that kind of attack, especially considering the source was a twentysomething waif?

It’s rare to see any Fortune 500 company move so nimbly when it comes to counteracting a potential negative shift in the court of public opinion. Commend Apple if you will, though it’s worth wondering why it even came down to Swift’s camp needing to resort to targeting the company rather than settling matters at the negotiation table before this could even get public.

But Apple’s swift reaction may say less about the company’s ethos and more about the circumstances of this particular episode. First, consider the incredible importance of launching Apple Music without the kind of hiccups that could derail deployment.

It’s hard to think of another category that has seemed so vulnerable to the vicissitudes of consumer sentiment than streaming music. Just look at what has happened to Tidal, the Jay Z-fronted service that has seen its launch to market shredded in a piranha-like frenzy — and it was the involvement of many top artists in that venture that was supposed to insulate the product from the very hullabaloo now killing its business.

Spotify already found out the hard way how easily someone in this space can get blown off course from its own much-publicized skirmish with Swift over her own decision to pull her “1989” album over dissatisfaction with the terms of their licensing deal.

Make no mistake that Spotify v. Swift is the conflict that looms larger than anything else over this Apple about-face. Apple can point to precedent in terms of the volatility someone of Swift’s stature can bring to the marketplace, and that incident no doubt emboldened Swift to ratchet up the rhetoric even when confronting the mighty Apple.

Apple doesn’t need any of the noise that would otherwise politicize its own service’s launch. Being perceived as not artist-friendly is a distraction that Cue felt best to just pay away before any real damage could be done.

“What would Steve Jobs do?” is a question many have asked in the era of Apple that followed its co-founder’s untimely death. It just isn’t a question one would have necessarily associated with a negotiation standoff with a pop star threatening to pull her chart-topping album.

And yet Apple’s reversal on its new policy was so unlike Apple that one can’t help but wonder what Jobs would have made of the curious situation in which his company found itself.

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