Too big to pay | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Too big to pay 

Apple is so influential that it can compensate the performers at its in-store events with merchandise and exposure—and no one will complain.

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Loona Dae performs at the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue in August 2018. - JONATHAN FRANK
  • Loona Dae performs at the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue in August 2018.
  • Jonathan Frank

Since the Michigan Avenue Apple Store opened in 2017, its Macbook-sleek design and proximity to the river have attracted crowds of Mag Mile shoppers, not just to buy or to seek tech support for Apple products but also to attend free events from the store's busy calendar of classes, panel discussions, live interviews, and performances. As part of its Today at Apple series, the tech giant's flagship Chicago location regularly hosts local musicians and other creative workers in front of an enormous video wall—a space it calls the Forum. But though it's one of the wealthiest companies in history, with a high-profile foothold in Chicago, Apple doesn't pay these performers.

Chicagoans who've been involved in these events confirm that the company offers a narrow selection of its own products as compensation—in the words of an Apple press representative, "a product gift for participating."

The Today at Apple series began in 2017 at Apple stores across the country, including several other locations in Chicagoland. Performances (musical and otherwise) are generally limited to stores in major cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. In March, Bay Area NPR outlet KQED confirmed that stores in San Francisco follow similar compensation practices for artists.

Producer, rapper, and singer Phoelix was offered his choice of an Apple Watch or an iPad for performing a few songs and participating in a Q&A in July 2018 (he picked the watch). Writer and marketer Lorena Cupcake, who moderated a panel in September 2018 as part of the monthlong Chicago Music Industry Summit, was offered an Apple Watch or an Apple TV streaming device. They initially planned to accept the watch, based on its higher resale value, and made their thinking clear to Apple staff: "Is it gonna be weird if I sell this Apple Watch?" In response, the company asked if there were something else they'd prefer. Cupcake took AirPods headphones instead: "It seems like they're willing to work with you if there's another Apple product that you want."

Singer Loona Dae received four Apple Watches—for herself and three supporting musicians—in exchange for a 30-minute performance in August 2018, also part of the CMIS. She declined an Apple TV device because she doesn't own a TV. She estimates the watches were worth $1,200 in total, though their value has likely decreased sharply since the updated Series 4 versions were rolled out in September. "They release different series so often, where they're able to give out materials before a new series is released because they know the value is going to be depreciated," Dae says.

Dae would have preferred Apple products that would assist her creative work. She didn't bring it up at the time, but as alternatives she suggests music-production program Logic (which retails for $199.99) or video-editing software Final Cut ($299.99). "I think that it makes more sense to give the artists that are performing materials that are helpful to their craft," she says.

Ten other participants in Today at Apple declined to comment on the record for this story, though one confirmed that they'd requested and received product as payment.

A beat-making workshop at the Apple Store on Michigan - MARK BRABOY
  • A beat-making workshop at the Apple Store on Michigan
  • Mark Braboy

Earlier this month, current and former Apple employees told Bloomberg that the stores "have become mostly an exercise in branding," and the Today at Apple events clearly signal the company's shift toward emphasizing its place in communities (as does its rapidly expanding number of stores, which recently topped 500). According to a January 2019 press release, Today at Apple offers customers the opportunity to "get more out of their products, find inspiration in their community and discover guidance from world-class creators." The same press release refers to the Forum's stools, stadium seating, and 23-foot 6K video screen as "a meeting place for the local community," and in that sentence mentions that it's home to many Today at Apple events.

Emphasizing branding continues to pay off for Apple. The world's largest company by market value, it's worth nearly a trillion dollars, and it reported $58 billion in revenue in the second quarter of 2019. According to Crain's, Apple pays $2.5 million annually to rent the Michigan Avenue building (with a 10 percent increase every five years over the course of a 15-year lease), which is owned by Invesco, an Atlanta-based investment firm that recently bought it for $79 million.

Considering the company's wealth and influence, even at a local level, it does surprisingly little to promote its events, apparently choosing to rely on the draw of the store itself to provide audiences for the occasional performance. Apple advertises in-store on its video wall and on what it calls "session tables." It also posts listings on the Apple Store app and creates dedicated web pages on apple.com, though neither is a common destination for Chicagoans interested in learning what's happening around town. According to the Apple press representative, the company promotes events through "word of mouth by Apple retail employees during customer visits to the store and programs."

Apple's social media accounts are conspicuously absent from this strategy. Individual Apple stores do not have their own accounts, and the corporate accounts don't promote local events. The Today at Apple series maintains no active Twitter or Instagram. In this arena, Apple relies on performers and their fans for promotion, though the company does custom graphics for online flyers, adding event details (in a very "Apple" white sans serif font) to artists' press photos.

Performers aren't required to do any promotion, though Dae explains that the company requested she post at least a week in advance and follow up with a "thank you" post acknowledging that the event had happened. Apple photographers sometimes provide images of the events to the artists, but audio and video aren't typically professionally recorded.

The Forum of the Michigan Avenue Apple Store, with its video wall and movable wooden box seating, hosts many Today at Apple events. - MARK BRABOY
  • The Forum of the Michigan Avenue Apple Store, with its video wall and movable wooden box seating, hosts many Today at Apple events.
  • Mark Braboy

Apple has had some success encouraging audience members to post on their own accounts, judging by the 83,000+ Instagram posts tagged #TodayAtApple—though that number sounds less impressive when you consider the vast number of events, which Apple itself pegs at 18,000 per week globally. But the company's follower counts are usually exponentially higher than the performers, speakers, educators, and other people involved in Today at Apple—if it made a single social media post per event, it'd give huge boosts to independent artists and creatives at minimal cost.

By relying largely on locals to promote themselves, Apple helps build the grassroots image it wants for itself. But it's a massive loss of potential exposure for the performers—Phoelix, Cupcake, and Loona Dae all said that the association with Apple was more important compensation than the products they were given.

Dae notes that an Apple event looks good on a resumé, and that hers made her feel "like more of a staple" in the local scene. Phoelix says that he made new fans with his Apple Store performance, and that he got new opportunities thanks to the resulting increase in visibility. He appreciated the chance to show off more of his personality by interacting with the audience, since he's "such a studio head." Cupcake explains that Apple's policy isn't necessarily unusual, because money is rarely on the table for speaking engagements outside academic circles. "The thing that Apple had that was of value to me is such a huge reach and such a high profile," they say. Cupcake, who's nonbinary, also appreciated the care that Apple's staff paid to using their correct pronouns.

All three also would be interested in working with Apple again in some capacity. "They're really invested in artists and trying to get their feet wet in what's happening in local communities across the nation," Dae says. "I just wish that it were on the scale of like, 2003 Apple, when they were pushing iPods and featuring indie artists and giving consumers a platform to discover, rather than just consume at their own discretion."

Given that live music in Chicago is already threatened by multinational corporate domination, it's a relief to see a giant company extending opportunities to local and independent artists. But it'd be even better for Apple to compensate creatives in a way that would more directly help their work—or even pay their bills.  v

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