Spotify has made (almost) the entire history of recorded music available to a majority of the globe for £/$10 a month. On the face of it, access to all your favourite music at the touch of a button sounds fantastic and, taken on those terms, it is. If you love music, as I assuredly do, this was always the dream. Since my first years in secondary school I have lived by my portable music player, be that on cassette, CD, mini-disc or mp3, so the idea of having an object that can play anything, anywhere, at all times is something of a miracle. Unfortunately Spotify’s dominance in this field and their methods with which they accomplish this leaves a lot to be desired.
The reason I am writing this piece is due to an Instagram story I put up the other day in response to everyone I knew posting their ‘Spotify Wrapped’ information. For those of you who are somehow online but haven’t seen this, Spotify Wrapped is a powerpoint presentation Spotify sends their users at the end of every year encouraging you to show everyone how much and what music you have listened to over the last 12 months. Despite the fact my feed was spammed with all of this, it was nice to see how much music people enjoy and made me feel better about dismissing the much whispered myth by people-who-should-know-better saying “No one listens to music anymore”. However, it also depressed the hell out of me. To explain why I posted a story of my own on IG that got an unprecedented response from my paltry amount of followers there and beyond. Some cheered me on, others told me I was flat-out wrong, while still more sounded confused and asked for clarification. Which brings us to this article.
I used to use Spotify back when it was free. This was at a time when Piracy was supposedly rife and ‘illegal downloading’ was ‘killing music’. Spotify found a way around this. Streaming music was not technically ‘buying’ as it wasn’t ‘downloading’ and using advertising between tracks meant they could pay the necessary licenses. Unfortunately this was still a sticky situation legally so Spotify then restricted the amount of times you could play a track. This annoyed users though, along with the commercials every three tracks, so they offered their premium membership service and the rest is history. Bear in mind this was back when Blockbusters still existed and Netflix posted you out discs. Spotify lead the way and changed the game. They could pay record labels the appropriate money for the licenses to allow the music to be streamed, while keeping ‘user engagement’ high, while making a vast amount of cash, while also side-stepping some decidedly dodgy ethical quandaries about ‘free music’. And this is where the problem lies.
Spotify was worth $2.3 billion as of last year, with a net worth of $26 billion. That was last year. They were bought in 2019 by Google for a reported $43.4 billion. Per stream they pay an artist $0.00437. It currently takes 229 streams to earn a dollar and 336, 842 to earn minimum wage from streams. Spotify are a platform that relies on artists to create music, without them it wouldn’t exist, yet this multi-billion dollar company prices a listen of a track at less than half a penny. A new twelve track album bought on any contemporary format in the last 30 years or so would cost $10 minimum. Production and distribution costs of the format should be factored in but even if the artists only saw $5 out of that sale that’s 40 cents per track, 100x what Spotify pays. To put it bluntly, Spotify is exploiting artists.
This taking-for-granted of artists is nothing new. Musicians have always been the least important part of the business since the dawn of pop around mid last century. Record labels and their parent companies have always milked the current fashions in pop for financial reward and not passed it on to the artists who created the music people wanted to listen to. Just read any musical biography from the last 70 years about the various machinations surrounding rights to songs and ‘where did the money go?’ And you’ll realise how rotten the music industry is. The Kinks even made an album about it (and it’s a banger). For instance, when a band gets ‘signed’, the dream for many an aspiring artist, they get the much vaunted ‘advance’, that — depending on the deal — can be millions. However that advance pays for everything; the recording of the album, living expenses, marketing, the lot, and the record label want that money BACK. It is a loan, not a gift. Therefore your album sales had best match that advance or you’re in hock to the label. Today that deal is roughly the same and with Spotify as almost the sole gatekeeper of what makes a hit today, getting that money back relies on a tonne of streams. Only once that money has been paid back does an act see that sweet, sweet $0.00437 per listen. Most bands make their money from live gigs, though with security, venue hire, gear, travel, production and food costs skyrocketing you can begin to understand why ticket prices go up year on year. The final — and now pretty much only — method of making money at all as a band/artist is through merchandising. Profits on merchandise are huge but you’re simply passing exploitation on down the chain by buying sweatshop produced shirts and printing them for cheap and adding a markup. But despite all this, at least Spotify is paying artists? Better that than pirating, right?
Well yes and no. Big artists do fine. John Mayer posted his stats saying how grateful he was for a billion streams. That’s a LOT in one year. It also made him $4 million. But for mid-level bands and artists, getting a million streams would be an achievement and will earn you a cool $4,370. A platinum selling album of old (1 million hard copies sold) would make $10million. Again, take away expenses and exploitation by the record label that still leaves those artists rich. But scale it down and a band who sells reasonably well could earn a living off record sales combined with touring. The fact success on Spotify is make or break for artists now means they will make no money from their recorded music whether they succeed or not. All while Spotify earns enough money to pay every artist on the platform a living wage. Don’t be fooled, earning billions every year would more than pay for that. The biggest question though, and the most sinister part of this, is: even with millions of subscribers where does Spotify’s grotesque amount of profit come from?
Like every other tech giant: user data. Spotify are not in the music business. They’re in the information selling business. The costs of running a global team, a UI and app and a few servers is not insubstantial but we’re talking the low millions, certainly nothing close to billions. Where they make the majority of their money is taking all your data — your personal data, location data, device data, listening habits, etc, all of which you provide them with, freely — and selling it to whoever they like. Which is why posting your ‘Spotify Wrapped’ is so unpleasant. You are, in a creepy way, proudly advertising the fact Spotify has tracked every single thing you have done over the last twelve months and with its sale to Google, that data aggregate on you personally is getting larger and larger. There’s a reason Black Mirror is still so scary… but equally, it should be noted, you own none of this music. I can dip into my CD or Record collection and dig out my old music to my heart’s content whereas Spotify can delete — or simply not have available — your favourite albums without any warning. Bear in mind the Beatles and Bob Dylan are only relatively recent arrivals to the platform. Without owning any material form of the music (which is half the fun of owning an album) it is not yours, you are simply loaning it off Spotify for a fee and they can deny you that right whenever they feel like. It should ALSO also be noted in today’s economy companies can go bust in moments at the whims of the market and when Spotify shuts its doors (which it undoubtedly will one day) where will your music collection be? And this is to say nothing of the platforms effect on music production itself.
The ‘Spotify Sound’ is now an industry standard, a method of creating a track to best serve the platform’s algorithms and therefore reach the most listeners. Note that it is algorithms that do this not people. Where once the gatekeepers were individuals (who knew nothing but their own tastes anyway) it is now a supposedly bias free technology that selects the objectively best song to recommend its listeners. Like with all algorithms, this is nonsense, as they come programmed with biases that can deepen and become more entrenched the more they self-perpetuate those biases, which is why cries of ‘It all sounds the same’ have got louder in recent years. You shouldn’t be able to put a number to a complex opinion and music is as subjective as it gets. By forcing artists to make music that fits into a very specific standard, it waters down the artistry and creativity required for this kind of expression. All so it can be bland enough to appeal to the widest possible audience to generate enough streams to earn barely a dollar. Hardly that utopian ideal for anyone concerned really, is it? But what can we do?
First and foremost we need to stop acting like Spotify is a necessary evil. It isn’t. Don’t believe the myth about illegal downloads killing music. In the 80s ‘taping was killing music’ too. Piracy is only taken seriously because it eats into the larger company’s profits (theft for which they are insured anyway). If anything, Spotify’s model has done more damage to a musician’s earning potential than any oblique form of theft ever did. By saturating the market with hours and hours of music uploaded every day it has devalued the currency, people no longer expect to pay more than $10 a month for infinite music at all times. And their disingenuous ad with cutesy animated creatures, where they stamp their feet at Apple Music (who pay their artists more than Spotify by the way) for daring to impose on their monopoly, makes me even LESS sympathetic to them. Nevertheless all of these companies should be paying artists more because they can absolutely afford it. And I do mean pay the artists, not just the labels. I am just as guilty in all this. Though I stopped using Spotify 10 years ago, I signed up to Apple Music a couple of months ago and have taken great delight in using it, but I’ve also done my best to pay artists whenever possible. For instance I just saw IDLES in London and have bought both their albums on record from their website. This is where we should be investing that $10 a month.
If you want to support the musicians you love, Spotify is not the way to do it. Buy their albums, preferably on vinyl because you normally get a digital download code with it and probably some cool other stuff (and yes, it does sound better, nerds). Buy their merchandise, but encourage them to go sweatshop free where possible. Buy tickets to see them, and if they’re smaller bands tell venues how much you liked, or would like, seeing them there. Talk about them and tag them online as it boosts their name and is good, cheap advertising. Have listening parties with those records, invite friends over with their favourite new music and talk about it while holding the lovely physical object in your hand. This stops an algorithm dictating your tastes to you rather than the passion of a friend or loved one discussing what music means to them. Almost all my favourite bands were recommended to me by a friend or family member. Most of all, step back from Spotify. Please. They do not have music or musician’s interests at heart. They are a data selling platform not a music distributor. They care as little about you as they do about the music they don’t pay for. If the success of Spotify tells us anything it is that music is a universal language and something we can’t do without in society, the least we can do is reward those who create it and not the platforms that exploit it.