Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian

Mere months after being valued at $1 trillion, Apple found an unlikely scandal on its hands. The technology giant is being accused of not paying the artists who share its talents for in-store “Today at Apple” sessions. Instead of providing cash—always useful for any artist—session leaders are given the option to select from three cheaper Apple products.

KQED, a public radio station serving the San Francisco Bay area, interviewed eleven artists who said they weren’t given appropriate payment for participating in workshops at the Union Square Apple Store. Instead, compensation came in the form of AirPods, Apple TV or the Apple Watch Series 3.

This is only the latest public relations blunder for Apple, which briefly reached a market value topping $1 trillion last summer, over how it compensates artists. Already this year, Apple got in hot water after it invited photographers to enter their iPhone photos into a contest. The winning images would appear on billboards promoting the camera capabilities of the iPhone.

Under the terms and conditions, it was clear Apple didn’t plan to pay the winning photographers to use the work to sell iPhone products. After significant blowback on social media, Apple relented, and said it would reward the winning photographers with a fee to license the photos.

The KQED report describes artists as unable to negotiate fair pay with Apple, with the consumer electronics company instead opting to pressure the artists to participate with promises of hardware and impossible-to-measure-but-oft-promised exposure. This has proved a dilemma for several artists, who took a reasonable chance in assuming that a collaboration with such a massive brand like Apple would pay off.

The story included a scene from a Black History Month installment, wherein playwright Ayodele Nzinga and some spoken-word artists spoke about Oakland’s music history. During the session, Nzinga talked about how musicians were working to use their talent to lift themselves out of poverty. The irony is clear.

Apple recruits artists for “Today at Apple” so customers can learn how to create art and music with various Apple products and programs. The Apple Store sessions, which take place the world over, have in the past included iPhone photography, iPad illustration or music production with GarageBand.

It’s not clear from the KQED report if artists and performers leading the sessions in other parts of the world get the same deal. At the same time, others interviewed apparently didn’t mind the compensation arrangement.

“I’m really grateful for the opportunity and experience,” Vanessa Nguyen told KQED. She performs under the name Besame as a visual artist and event producer who was part of a session that included a panel discussion and performances with her creative collective, Le Vanguard. “But definitely knowing they’re a giant company that’s not going bankrupt, it’s kind of weird that they can’t compensate talent.”


Ronn Torossian is CEO of leading PR firm 5WPR.