Apple had been taking a hard line in negotiations with music labels about its decision to withhold royalty payments during Apple Music’s three-month trial period, reportedly arguing that payouts afterwards would be higher than other music-streaming services.
Yet it did a 180 this week after pop star Taylor Swift penned an open letter on social media in which she said the company’s policy was "shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company."
Within 24 hours, Apple reversed its decision.
"When I woke up this morning and I saw Taylor’s note that she had written, it really solidified that we needed to make a change," Apple SVP Eddy Cue told the Associated Press. He also tweeted about the reversal, saying, "We hear you and indie artists. Love, Apple."
Some communications experts speculate that Apple had a contingency plan in place to capitulate if a mega-star objected. That it did so because Swift spoke up surprises none of the experts who spoke with PRWeek, who note her influence extends beyond music because of her multi-generational fan base and social media savvy.
"Her letter was incredibly articulate, very poignant, and her choice of platform – Tumblr – was so smart," says Courtney Nally, SVP and GM at Ketchum Sports & Entertainment. "Obviously she wasn’t going to be able to write that in 140 characters, and it wouldn’t have had the same impact on Instagram."
She adds that among musicians, Swift doesn’t have the most followers on Twitter with 59 million; both Justin Bieber and Katy Perry have a few million more.
"But they don’t command the same audience," adds Nally. "Her music is more universal – you have 15-year-old fans going to see her in concert while their moms wait in the car listening to her music."
Few celebrities can challenge institutions like Swift. Nally adds that actors and activists George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have written op-eds in The New York Times, and while their writings have been political and social in nature, "given their traditional choice of media, their influence can’t be compared to Taylor."
Jennifer DeNick, VP in the consumer lifestyle division at Coyne PR, adds, "I don’t think people could cause something like this to happen quite the same way because Taylor has this image as a nice person. She is not known for coming out and being critical, so when she does, people listen."
While there are few celebrities of her calibre, DeNick cautions that future stars who are growing up on social media could have a lot of clout in the years to come.
"As more stars Taylor’s age or younger emerge and are used to engaging and connecting with fans online, I think you’re going to see more of them become very, very influential," says DeNick. "People feel more connected to celebrities more than ever before because of social media. They feel like they are engaging with them personally."
Observers have characterized Apple’s response as a PR win for the technology giant, noting that many consumers who probably had no idea about the free trial learned about it on media from evening entertainment programs to morning news shows.
"While I think there could have been more of a fallout for Apple, the fact that they moved so quickly meant they benefited on the positivity [from Taylor afterward, who tweeted her thanks to the company for reversing their decision]," says Tony Telloni, GM of Spark’s New York office.
"If I had been handling comms for Apple, I would have developed several contingency plans, this being one of them: If someone of major stature comes out in contrast to what we’re doing, we have to take it seriously. I’m sure they were prepared to move in two or three different directions because that’s how Apple operates," he adds.
In fact, some PR pros think its capitulation to a big star could even have been premeditated.
"The idea that offering others creative property for free and Apple not fully expecting a backlash from artists is highly suspicious," says Marcy Massura, SVP and digital practice lead at MSLGroup. "I imagine the boardroom conversation went like this, ‘Hey let’s just say we are going to do it, then wait for an artist to call us out on it, and then we will say we changed our mind. We will look like we care. And think of all the press about the platform. This is golden.’"
"I am not saying that this was indeed a contrived PR stunt," she adds, "but if it quacks like a PR stunt duck it is likely a PR stunt duck."
Others, however, aren’t convinced the incident was a Roman triumph for Apple’s business – at least in terms of the bottom line.
"I’m not sure because of the revenue impact to them," says Stephen Corsi, SVP at Lewis Pulse, "but clearly they responded in a way that did not hurt their image as much as it could have. Personally I thought Taylor’s letter was somewhat hypocritical – she mentions that she is doing this for unselfish reasons (ie., or all of the new artists, songwriters, bands) but she herself stood to lose significant royalties by going unpaid for three months."
Yet faced with the losing prospect of taking on an ultra-popular mega-star, Apple responded appropriately, he concludes.
"But I think Apple did respond in the best way they could, because she could have continued to draw this out into a bigger story," Corsi says. "I don’t think this has negatively impacted Apple at all."
Representatives from Apple could not be reached.