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Al Franken: Is Apple rigging the music-streaming biz?

Al Franken in 2014

Al Franken in 2014

Lately, opinions on music-streaming services are a lot like smartphones — everybody’s got one. And on those smartphones, 52 percent of Americans regularly use a music-streaming app of some form. Since Spotify ran with the idea of albums on demand back in 2008, plenty of musicians have played both opponent and benefactor to this new enterprise, and which camp you fall into tends to depend on how many people named Jay Z you’re friends with.

Still, the U.S. Congress has remained markedly disengaged in the debate surrounding one of its largest cultural exports. Granted, Bob Segar and Garth Brooks are both streaming holdouts, so what does John Boehner need Spotify for anyway? This week, however, Minnesota Senator and Capitol Hill boy scout Al Franken penned an open letter to the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, imploring them to investigate potential antitrust violations within the streaming music market. His senatorial slingshot was aimed at Apple Music in particular.

The lead issue Franken takes umbrage with is Apple’s policy on fees for in-app subscription services, which levy a 30 percent cost increase on purchases made through the App Store. In practice, this means downloading the Spotify app through the Apple App Store will tack on $3 to a subscription charge that runs for $9.99 when purchased from Spotify direct.

“Increased competition in the music-streaming market should mean that consumers will ultimately benefit through more choices of better products and at lower prices,” Franken wrote in his letter released Wednesday. “I am concerned, however, that Apple’s position as a dominant platform operator may actually undermine many of the potential consumer benefits of its entry into the market. To protect consumer choice and promote greater transparency of pricing, I ask that you review Apple’s business practices with respect to its competitors in the music streaming market.”

Good intentions aside, it sounds a bit like Franken can’t see the forest from the trees with his rhetoric. As garish of a cash-grab as Apple’s policy may seem, and as vast as its digital-music footprint is, Android has an identical 30-percent policy for its developers. The message is also still wholly aligned with the plight of fellow streaming services — a narrative that doesn’t ultimately jell with the larger conversation of artistic compensation being completely ignored.

It’s also worth mentioning that Franken is kind of complicit by association in this alleged racket, since his 2004 radio show compilation is currently available on Apple Music. But judging by the very vocal opinions of much more famous artists, I doubt he’s seen many royalty checks.