I’ve written about artists rights and Spotify before, in this post from 10 years ago. The disappointing thing is that we haven’t really seen any improvements in the intervening decade.
Spotify is back in the news at the moment following the controversies around Joe Rogan, and artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell removing their music from the service in protest.
I’m not going to dwell on the pros and cons of Rogan himself. I’ve not consumed much of his content and, whilst it is not for me, I don’t feel informed enough to comment. A lot of people have commented that the actions of Young and other is a free speech issue, and argue that their criticism of Rogan amounts to censorship and should be opposed. Obviously the principles of free speech are important, so is this simply a free speech issue?
The answer for me is no. Spotify is a service that benefits from the artists that contribute to it. If they don’t like the way Spotify behaves (for any reason) they have the absolute right to withdraw their music. In this instance Spotify has chosen to pay Rogan a lot of money ($100m for exclusive rights to his show) and has shown him a lot more faith than any of the musical artists who contribute to the site, most of whom make very little money from it. Just this week they removed over 110 episodes of Rogan’s show due to the use of racist language. He is also accused of spreading (or helping to spread) disinformation about vaccines. If you are an artist on the service, and see him paid so highly to deliver those messages, then perhaps you don’t want to be associated with that?
One counter argument I have seen made is the fact that Rogan attracts so many listeners (11m per show) and is therefore more important to Spotify than artists that have only thousands of streams per track. This seems to miss the essential thing that makes Spotify so attractive to a consumer. The fact that you can hear music by almost any act you would like to is the draw for most subscribers. If you start taking acts away then the overall appeal starts to dwindle. Sure they would lose listeners if Rogan left, but if a significant number of artists left the service then you would see subscribers jumping to a competitor in droves.
It has also been noted that it is a shame that Young and Mitchell hadn’t made a stance before on artists rights, when they are two acts that have already benefitted from the industry. The bigger issue of poor payments from Spotify should have been the motivator for them much earlier. On this I do tend to agree. The amount of money that Spotify pays to artists per stream is pitiful. This article from Rolling Stone shows that outside the top-tier artists on the service there are millions of acts in the lower tier that earn an average of just $12 a month from streaming.
Spotify main-man Daniel Ek argued that what artists need to do to earn more money is to produce more content. This is clearly a nonsense for those lower tier artists. Even if a new album doubled their income (and that would seem unlikely) it would take them decades to recoup the recording costs of a new album. Spotify does give artists exposure and that is clearly valuable. It gets their music out there and can help sell concert tickets and even support the sale of physical media. However, the last two years has taught us how fragile the gigging economy is, and with major labels hogging the pressing plants vinyl releases aren’t a reliable thing for the independent artist (and they are an expensive outlay if they don’t succeed).
The simplest solution would be for Spotify to adjust it’s model to make it fairer to the artists that have made the service so rich. An increase in the subscription cost might be necessary and a big cut in profits for Ek and his shareholders would be essential. It is clearly possible for a streaming service to pay more per stream. This article on medium shows the relative payments from services to artists. Spotify isn’t the worst but it is pretty low down the chain, with Tidal, (ironically) Napster and Amazon Unlimited being the services that pay the most.
Cards on the table, I’m a Spotify subscriber. I have been for years, despite my reservations. I don’t feel bad about my personal contributions to the industry and always have, and continue to, spend more than most on physical media and paid downloads. Including supporting directly at shows and via Bandcamp. I do feel bad about my money going to a service that values its musical artists so poorly, when (as the Rogan deal demonstrated) they have plenty of money to pay when it suits them.
When I look at making the switch I feel conflicted. Amazon Unlimited pays the most, but do I want to support a company like Amazon (with all its other ethical challenges) any more than I already do? The service with the best sound quality, or so I’m told, is Tidal and they pay 3x the rate Spotify does, and their premium service gives more money directly to the artists you listen to most. However Tidal is majority owned by a company headed by former twitter boss Jack Dorsey, and do I want to make him even richer?
At the end of the day we each have to make the best choices we can as individuals. And I know that I can’t personally justify supporting Spotify much longer when they don’t adequately support the artists that made them. I just need to decide which way to jump.
By Dorian Rogers