It’s good to see Spotify suffer, at least in the short term. The Swedish streaming service has fostered a music distribution model singularly hostile to the interests of working musicians. It pays out, on average, about four tenths of a cent per stream, which means a thousand streams earns about four dollars. This arrangement reaped huge profits for major labels and superstars alike while decimating music revenue on a smaller scale – as perfect an embodiment of neoliberal winner-take-all economics as it has yet been. designed. Various artists have tried to stand up to Spotify over the years; Neil Young is the first who could be the origin of the company true evil. He recently requested the removal of his music in response to the trafficking of covid-19 misinformation by podcaster Joe Rogan, who has a licensing deal with Spotify worth an estimated hundred million dollars or more. Joni Mitchell followed suit, saying that “irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people’s lives”. Even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have “expressed their concerns”.
As welcome as the protests are, they don’t address the fundamental injustice of the streaming economy. Young obviously failed to mention Spotify’s payment structure in his declaration, although he complained about the audio quality. He invited fans to listen to his music on Amazon and Apple Music, where payments to artists are larger but not exactly lavish. Ross Grady, a stalwart of the North Carolina music scene, got into the thick of it on Twitter: “I love that people are looking for alternatives to Spotify and I don’t know how to explain to them that it never has. been ethical. or durable to expect unlimited access to all recorded music history for $10/month.
Certainly, the problem raised by Young is real and serious. Rogan argued that ‘healthy’ young people don’t need to get vaccinated to covid-19; he advocated the use of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin against the virus; and he claimed that covid vaccines increase the risk of myocarditis. Epidemiologist Katrine Wallace called Rogan a “public health threat”. Over the weekend Daniel Ek, the billionaire CEO of Spotify, promised to provide a “content notice” for the podcast covid discussions, while falling back on a predictable defense: “It is important to me that we do not take the position of censor of content. Big Tech companies routinely hide behind free speech rhetoric when something awful is said or done on their platforms. It’s a loose song and dance that Shoshana Zuboff lacerates brilliantly in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.”
Ek makes a quote-worthy villain, but the rage against Spotify falls into a familiar American pattern: instead of addressing systemic issues, we stage morality plays involving the wrongdoings of individuals. One miscreant falls, another rises and the song remains the same. Young, to his credit, has made a measurable sacrifice: without Spotify, his royalties will suffer, though he may receive a compensating boost from young people who approve of his position. Are consumers also ready to make sacrifices? The magic of Spotify is its convenience. You can get almost any music you want, anytime. Apple Music gives you the same magnificent infinity. What if, to support the musicians you care about, you were asked to give up the very idea that all music is available on demand?
There may be no turning back. One of the original sins of the internet age was the drastic devaluation of music work that took place with the rise of Napster. A few generations have come of age expecting that music isn’t something you should have to pay for. The morality game of this era involved the misdeeds of record companies, which had a long history of exploiting musicians, and which responded to file sharing by suing students. Goliath was killed; the music is released. But the majors quickly got their revenge. Napster was shut down and more business-friendly regimes took their place. Apple’s iTunes, which came out on top, was more than fair in its payments to artists: if you owned your masters, you could get seventy cents on the dollar. But he took music out of context, reducing physical recordings to packets of data. Spotify has completed the devaluation cycle, cutting payouts to almost nothing and obliterating artistic identity through the workings of its notorious algorithm.
Singer-songwriter and author Damon Krukowski, who has been my primary guide to streaming racketeering for a decade, delivers a summary of burns in his latest newsletter:
Add to that the fact that Spotify, like all forms of streaming, is destructive to the environment, consuming more power than music distribution systems of earlier eras.
When revenue from record sales plummeted, artists were told they could still make a decent living from touring, merchandising, and the like. Ek gave other sage advice in a interview 2020“You can’t record music once every three or four years and think that’s enough. . . It’s about getting the job done, telling the story around the album, and maintaining an ongoing dialogue with your fans. He then suggested that artists emulate Taylor Swift, who with the release of “folklore” had just scored nearly ninety-eight million streams in a single day. The message is pretty clear: to thrive in the age of streaming, all you have to do is achieve such gigantic, oxygen-draining notoriety that four-tenths of a hundred can be multiplied by hundreds of thousands of dollars. To those who have much, more will be given. The coldness of logic became very clear when the pandemic put an end to touring, wiping out those who made a living on the road.
Spotify, like Facebook and Amazon, has the advantage of being obnoxiously essential. No matter how much people hate service, they can’t imagine life without it. Those who gave up their record collections are unlikely to go back to buying individual albums. This cycle of addiction and dependency is at the heart of Big Tech dominance, along with the well-worn argument of technological fatalism: change is inevitable, resistance is futile, empire always wins. The odious can, however, motivate political action. The Musicians and Allied Workers Union has made incremental progress with its “Justice at Spotify” countryside. A parliamentary inquiry in the music streaming economy was launched in the UK in 2020, and a UN report includes a dedicated streaming fee proposal. In the meantime, fair alternatives exist: band camp, resonate, Amplified.
You can also do the old-fashioned thing and buy an album. I recently wrote about Stephen Hough’s superb recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes, on the Hyperion label. Hyperion is one of the few labels to have stayed away from the streaming world; they don’t even participate IDAGE, a classic only service. Simon Perry, the label’s director, Recount Strings magazine, “Everyone reads how awesome streaming is for the recording industry. It’s not. We spent £1.4m . . . last year just to get the audio Done. I need to generate the sales revenue to pay for this audio. If I turn on streaming, I’ll never pay for it. On Twitter, Hough offered a more specific explanation for his album’s absence from most services. streaming: “We had to pay the piano tuner :-).”