Spotify for Good or Ill. For Good and Ill. | Songs for the Struggling Artist on WordPress.com
Spotify for Good or Ill. For Good and Ill.
For a little while, I felt righteous and superior because I didn’t have or use Spotify. I knew their reputation for underpaying artists and felt I had the moral high ground by not participating in it. But then I saw it in action. I saw how it was an incredible library of music. I saw how it was more expansive than any music library I had ever spent time in (and I have spent time in a few.) It is an incredible resource. And while it fails to do it adequately, it does, unlike many other platforms, attempt to give back to the artists in its library.
I think Spotify is actually a useful example of an increasingly urgent crisis point developing in our new modern world. It has all the good and all the bad rolled up in one.
For the good: As a person who cares about music, Spotify offers a world I would never access to without it. While researching material for my children’s book, I explored the music of Mesopotamia, Somalia, Lithuania, Sudan, Iran and more. All of which was available to me within seconds. That so much music of the world is at my fingertips is an absolute miracle of the modern age. My new favorite artist thanks to exploring on Spotify, is a Malian woman who lives in France.
Is it possible I could have stumbled upon her at a local record shop? Sure. That’s how I fell in love with Cuban hip-hop band, The Orishas and got into Afro-Peruvian music — by hearing them played at The Tower Records I was browsing in.
But. Tower Records is gone and my CD player isn’t even plugged in anymore. I don’t think we’re going back — even if there is a revitalization of vinyl and the kids listen to cassettes ironically or whatever — I don’t think Tower Records is coming back. I think we now have to reckon with a digital musical world. For good or ill. For good and ill.
The ill is how Spotify‘s dominance in music means the extreme diminishment of musicians. People don’t buy albums of music anymore because they don’t have to. Why pay for something when you can hear it on demand for free? It’s easier, it’s less fussy, you can just listen to everything you love in one place. Why would you pay when you don’t have to?
And many a listener comforts their feeling of guilt at listening via Spotify by thinking about Spotify’s pay per listen situation. They’re thinking — well, an artist is getting compensated every time I listen to a song. Having recently joined Spotify as an artist, I too, thought I’d be pulling in a little bit of something that way. But Spotify doesn’t tell you how much you’ll get. When they gave me my artist page, they said nothing about money. From my band’s previous digital distribution deal, I know we once made .01 per listen. It’s doubled now to .02.
I read about an artist who just retired from music. Her quarterly statement was for around 14,000 streams and she made around $15. My digital distributor just sent me my first earnings statement for my current music on multiple platforms. For 126 streams, I made 55 cents. It’s going to be a long long time until I pay off the $20 per album I spent to be on the digital platform. And to keep an album on Spotify next year, I’ll need to pay double what I paid this year. It is definitely a money losing proposition to be there.
As an artist on Spotify, I love that it tells me where people are listening. It delights me to know that, this month, people in Sweden, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, South Africa, Finland and more are listening to stuff I recorded in my living room. That is very cool. It makes me feel like a citizen of the larger world. Spotify has a way of making the world smaller.
That smallness of the world is one of the major changes the digital age has brought us. We can’t pretend that what we do in our small corner of the world doesn’t have an impact elsewhere. Donny Twimp is happening to everyone all the world — not just us Americans. Those who voted for Brexit might be said to have voted for a return to their pre-digital village life. Perhaps they wanted to return to a world where they could pretend that only those within their immediate area mattered. But there is no putting this global genie in the bottle, for good or ill, for good or ill, for good and ill.
That’s why the “America First” idea is so absurd (not to mention a slogan from the Nazis in America during actual Nazi time.) Anything that happens here, happens everywhere just the way a company like Spotify, started in Sweden, can change the entire landscape of music in the world. We have to figure out a way to embrace the wonders and the ease of this new emerging world and also support the unintended consequences. Spotify has played a giant role in the elimination of the musician middle class. The CEO of Spotify is now a billionaire. People who once could make a living from music have had to stop. This means that the bulk of money being made on music is coming from one of the three remaining record corporations — and most of the hit songs are written by the same handful of guys.
While music still means big money for those corporations, it is not good for music as a whole. And Spotify’s business model makes it worse. The music it pushes via its individualized playlists are the songs paid for by the corporations. Spotify suggests what the corporations pay it to suggest. Playlists are how Spotify makes the wheels turn. When someone puts you on a popular playlist — that’s when the wheels start turning. So what is the solution? Opt out of Spotify? You could. But at this point, it’s like opting out of an iPhone or social media. It’s not unheard of — but I’m not sure it makes much difference. In a way, the die has been cast. The musician middle class is already decimated.
Can we count on a corporation to do the right thing? I doubt it.
Should we shame people into buying music they don’t want to own? I see people trying that strategy and it doesn’t seem to work. I also feel like maybe the notion of owning music in the first place is kind of odd. We’re trying to downsize our things and our environmental footprint, right? Consume less. Make less plastic, etc. So. No. Shaming people into buying instead of streaming doesn’t seem like a great way to proceed.
It seems to me that aren’t a lot of good options here….and this problem isn’t just with music — this is for so many other things. But as Jaron Lanier pointed out — musicians (and journalists) are the canaries in the coal mine. In the last year or so, we’ve seen a revitalization of journalist outlets — but I don’t expect that that surge is a lasting change and I don’t know if such a thing is possible for music. I think this moment probably calls for a radical restructuring of how we do everything. Idea: a Universal Basic Income — everyone can have all the music they want for free if musicians could live and create without worrying about basic survival.
One of Jaron Lanier’s books offered a technological solution — and I’m not a technologist so I don’t have an idea of how this would actually work. But he proposed that digital code include a little tag back to the creator of that thing so that when that thing were shared or played or downloaded, its creators would see a bit of a return on that. There’s something about this idea that has really stuck with me, though I read the book years ago now. There is a sense of justice to it that we don’t have in the current model of things.
More and more things that we used to have to pay for are now free for us to use. We can listen to music for free on Spotify (and not just Spotify. Amazon, Google and Apple are now in the streaming game as well.) We can use a free robot lawyer via DoNotPay. We can access therapy via digital therapists. We are entertained for free via YouTube or our trial subscription movie/TV services. We read our news for free (as long as we clear our caches.)
And once people can get a thing for free, they are then unlikely to pay for it. I don’t think we can expect people to suddenly start donating to their newspaper of choice or paying for TV shows. We’ve tried to fund the arts through crowdfunding but it’s about as effective as trying to crowdfund an entire nation’s healthcare. Single companies have tremendous power to change the landscape of entire swaths of the world in record time. Spotify, a Swedish company, is making massive amounts of money while artist make massively less.
In my own artistic practice, I benefit greatly from a handful of extraordinary people who subsidize my work for the others who get it for free. It’s a bit like the Public Radio model — a handful of listeners donate so that the others can listen. My patrons keep me going so I can live to write another day. Which might sound a little melodramatic — but that’s essentially what’s at stake. If you like music and like to be able to hear more than the manufactured beats of a handful of Euro dudes — you have to help keep those musicians alive. Dead musicians don’t make music. And hungry ones don’t make the best music they can. If there’s no money to be made in music, then your musicians will be too busy trying to scrounge up a living to be able to give you the music you love.
But what are we supposed to do? Spotify is a great way to hear music but it’s destroying musical cultures around the world. Facebook is a great way to connect with the people we care about but it’s destroying our democracy. Amazon was once just a great way to get books your local bookseller couldn’t carry but now it’s destroying one brick and mortar business after another, gutting Main streets and shopping districts. It’s not as simple as deleting Facebook or not using Spotify because whatever digital behemoth we take down, another will rise in its place.
We are in a very sticky situation and have been for some time. Me? I look to the people who were part of creating the digital world to help us out of it. They are at the forefront of both recognizing what trouble we’re in and offering ideas about how to fix it. For example, governmental regulation is very high on a lot of their lists.
New York magazine just published this extraordinary article about all this called The Internet Apologizes and it is bracing and important reading. We don’t have to delete Facebook or Spotify or Amazon or Twitter or whatever — at least not yet — but we do have to figure out how to hold them accountable for the changes they create in our greater world. And we need to stay awake and aware and get really creative about how to have things like the world’s greatest music library without destroying the lives of some of the world’s greatest musicians.
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Originally published at artiststruggle.wordpress.com on April 21, 2018.