How Taylor Swift Transcended Lars Ulrich Status In Her Apple Music Battle

Taylor Swift and Lars Ulrich
Courtesy Photo; Getty Images

The pop superstar could have been viewed as greedy. Instead, she's viewed as a champion. Here's how she avoided Metallica's missteps.

Taylor Swift's open letter to Apple Music on Sunday (June 21) produced a victory for the pop superstar in a matter of hours, as the tech giant announced that night that it had decided to pay labels during its new streaming service's 90-day free trial period after Swift had taken issue with the lack of artist compensation. Dozens of like-minded artists applauded Swift for influencing Apple's free trial stance, and Swift tweeted that she was "elated and relieved" by the change in course. However, Swift had already won the more important battle before Apple waved the white flag: she had avoided the bad publicity that usually comes from a superstar griping over money issues generated from new technology -- or, simply put, becoming the Lars Ulrich of a new generation.

Quick history lesson: 15 years ago, Ulrich and the rest of Metallica filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Napster, the first widely successful MP3 downloading service, after discovering that a demo of their song "I Disappear" had been floating around the Internet for free. Metallica was not the only artist or entity to take Napster to court, but Ulrich unwittingly became the poster child for the anti-piracy movement by being the most demonstratively opposed to the idea of music being accessed for free online, both in media interviews and via official testimony. This all happened in 2000, when popular artists could forge a platinum album off of one single; the music industry today is unrecognizable from the one that birthed Napster, but Ulrich was battling for artists' rights and the value of recorded music, which is the same fight Swift took on last weekend.

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The talking points are eerily similar, too. "This is not about me," Swift wrote in her Tumblr post about Apple Music. "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." In July 2000, Ulrich told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Napster takedown, "[M]y band, Metallica, is fortunate enough to make a great living from what it does. Most artists are barely earning a decent wage and need every source of revenue available to scrape by." Swift called Apple Music's disregard of writer, producer and artist royalties "shocking" and "disappointing," a decade and a half after Ulrich reduced Napster's services to a single word: "theft."

Like Swift, Ulrich eventually won out against his corporate foe: in 2001, the Napster lawsuit was partially settled and the file-sharing service became a widely ignored subscription system. One year later, Napster filed for bankruptcy. Metallica has continued releasing music and performing to large crowds -- the band will headline Lollapalooza later this summer -- but Ulrich's Napster crusade will forever be the part of his career that is the most widely derided. Ulrich and the rest of Metallica were mocked on South Park, portrayed as money-hungry morons in a popular video by CampChaos.com and bashed by fans for attacking their fandom. Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx told MTV in 2000, "[Metallica] make enough off T-shirts and concert events and other forms of corporation. I think that it's not acceptable behavior for an artist to do that to their fans." Ulrich's legacy will forever be intertwined with that of Napster, which is probably something that the Metallica drummer never wanted to happen.

Meanwhile, Swift's Apple Music showdown probably won't be more than a minor footnote in her career when it ends someday -- and it certainly won't involve the word "backlash" at all. Bleachers' Jack Antonoff called Swift's words "powerful and important," while Christina Perri gushed, "this is so amazing. thank you for writing this @taylorswift13." Swift made the same argument as Ulrich, at a point in her career where her monetary success is far more incalculable, and has faced none of the blowback. And she did it by understanding the prevailing perceptions of the situation.

Let's look at the five key differences in the way Swift's battle with Apple Music has been perceived versus Ulrich's Napster showdown:

1. The Perception of the Request. Swift never asked for Apple Music to be shut down in her Tumblr post -- she wanted one aspect, the three-month free trial, to be tweaked in favor of artists' rights. Unlike Ulrich, who wanted to destroy the fundamental tenets of a popular website, Swift approached the situation by acknowledging that Apple "has been and will continue to be one of my best partners in selling music and creating ways for me to connect with my fans" in the second sentence of her open letter. In the title To Apple, Love Taylor, the third word is the most crucial.

2. The Perception of the Corporation. Apple is a multi-billion-dollar tech giant with millions of fans and a long history of working closely with musical artists. Although Swift wrote her open letter from a place of disappointment, the post was also a means of engaging with a crowd-pleasing juggernaut -- one which quickly reversed course, conceded that they would eat the cost of the 90-day free trial period and made everyone (including Swift) happy.

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Compare Swift's battle with Apple, which no one believes will go out of business by fronting its new streaming service's three-month free trial, with Ulrich's attempt to wipe out Napster, a much smaller company which had given (mostly young) music fans a radical new technology for free. When Metallica struck out against Napster, they didn't understand how many users viewed the file-sharing service not as a booming enterprise, but as a new voice of the people.

Ulrich likewise attempted to remove Metallica from the negative impacts of piracy, focusing his testimony on the little guys: "Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community," he said. Part of the problem was the timing of the sentiment: the music industry was still booming in 2000, and Ulrich's critics didn't understand why he was fighting for other artists who were probably rich anyway. The big mistake Metallica made, however, was delivering to court the names of more than 300,000 Napster users who had pirated the band's music and asking that these users be removed from the site. Ulrich tried to explain the decision -- "This is not about Metallica and its fans; this is about Metallica and Napster," he said -- but too many supporters had already been alienated. The move was perceived as an attack against Metallica fans instead of an inclusive explanation, and in response, Ulrich and co. were roasted.

5. The Perception of the Artists. This is the big one. Swift and Ulrich were both rich and famous when they waged their respective wars, but one of them was perceived as impassioned, and the other seen as smug. Swift has always been the Queen Bee that casts herself as an outsider -- she was on the bleachers longingly watching the cheer captain when she won the album of the year Grammy -- and her Apple Music conflict was presented not as "the complaints of a spoiled, petulant child," but as a humble thesis posted on an online medium popularized by teens. Swift is the Everywoman standing up for a common goal; in 2000, Ulrich was the 36-year-old rock star making his convoluted case on Charlie Rose instead of speaking directly to his fans. The Metallica drummer wasn't wrong, but he was perceived as fighting a new way to access music from a place of greed. Ulrich discounted how his Napster war would make him look, while Swift leapt into the fray the right way, and is now a hero.