By Ali Bush
As a music nerd, Spotify scares me. It’s big, corporate, suspicious, and almost too good to be true. It knows what we want to listen to before we know what we want to listen to. It’s immediate, comprehensive, and scary to someone who is still used to paying for every single song separately or on a CD. The company went public last week, after becoming the most widely used streaming service in the world. Critics are forecasting that it is a matter of time before Spotify takes a step like Netflix, and becomes its own record label, and forces competition from smaller labels out. It’s time to dive into this service to understand how our generation of music listeners are consuming music.
I asked a few Scripps students about why they use Spotify. Some students cited Spotify’s straightforward interface as a major selling point, as well as its place as the first streaming service. It’s “mainstream” qualities also appealed to one student. It’s important though to understand how it has changed the game of the music industry.
We all know about the atrocious wages that Spotify pays musicians (thanks to Taylor Swift and the rise of Tidal Music), but let’s look at just how much Spotify is getting away with as a major, now public, corporation. The whole idea of digitally streaming music is incongruous with the ways that we still understand mechanical royalties which is paid based on the number of songs a songwriter sells. Streaming, however requires an entirely different framework, as streaming isn’t quite considered a sale, but more of access to a database where customers have access to music anytime for ridiculously low prices.
For example, Pitchfork writer Damon Krukowski explains that his small, indie band made only $1.05 for the 5,960 times their single was played on Spotify. That means that smaller bands and less-known artists are not only making less money, but they often aren’t figured into the algorithms the Spotify uses to suggest new music. Obviously, if you’re looking to listen to and support underground music or up-and-coming artists, your money simply won’t do the trick.
Even massively successful artists are upset about their compensation. According to the Hollywood Reporter, in September of 2017, hundreds of musicians and publishers including Tom Petty, Dan Auerbach, Kim Gordon, and Kenny Rogers drafted a court filing and complaint against a $43 million settlement that was intended to repay thousands of musicians and publishers for 7.5 million songs that illegally made it into Spotify’s catalogue.
The lack of just compensation is a trait common to almost all music streaming services. However, whereas Apple and Amazon are huge companies that rely on other sources of profit, like with Alexa and iPhones, Spotify depends solely on its subscriptions and advertisers. The company has no other focus but to share music, and this only makes the company’ failures in compensating musicians even more appalling.
Solutions to compensating artists responsibly comes down to us, the consumer. The resurgence of vinyl is promising for upcoming bands, as more profit goes directly towards them. Although it’ a pricey endeavor, it’s a way to directly compensate artists and their labels. Similarly, revenue from headlining shows is becoming a major source of income for upcoming artists. Paying for your favorite band’s t-shirt, vinyl record, or concert ticket will compensate them more than listening to their single 5,000 times.
What scares me the most about Spotify is the ways it is shaping how people listen to music. The platform is creating a new kind of listening experience where artists, producers, genre, and community are not valued. Spotify’s reluctance to value musicians is obvious in the dominance of playlists in its algorithm. Baffler writer Lis Pelly points out that playlist on Spotify are generated to echo emotions and activities more than the actual artists, albums, and genres. It is easier to find a Spotify-created playlist than an album. By encouraging listeners to select music based on personal mood or activity, less importance is put on the creators and songwriters. Whereas Apple Music features artist-oriented playlists like, “Black Keys’s Influences” or even playlists that spotlight a certain producer or record label, Spotify’s playlists downplay the role of the music’s creators and acts as background music. One student cited Spotify’s “playlist radio” function as an appealing aspect of Spotify. She explained that after her playlist had ended, similar style songs begin playing, and “I don’t even realize it’s on the radio setting because it is so good at matching beats, tempos, and overall vibes.” Sadly, Spotify playlists are often acting as a provider of background music.
One student said, “I use [Spotify] to make playlists mostly… I have a playlist just for packing, for classical music, for throwback songs, and for relaxing music.” While the playlist-heavy interface obviously appeals to a new generation of music listeners, it is generally not how artists imagine their work. Most artists create music with the framework of an album in mind, not a slot on a playlist. So, when Spotify makes its branded playlists more available and dominant than artists actual albums, less emphasis is placed on the artists, their album, collaborators, and record label. Then, when Spotify fails to compensate songwriters, the public remains only vaguely upset for a short time (because the modern music listener is arguably less connected to musicians’ names.) However, the argument can be made that like the cassette in the 1980s, Spotify playlists can enable listeners to arrange disparate music into coherent playlists and interact with music more democratically.
Of course, this article is not meant to shame Spotify users. There is no denying that music streaming services are the cheapest and most practical way to listen to music. The power of corporate businesses have to shape our consumer choices and abilities to listen to music affordably is nearly inescapable. However, it is important to understand how these massive corporations shape our experiences with music and fail to support artists, especially new artists.
Image Credit to Spotify