Earlier this year I shared my thoughts on Spotify’s “Loud and Clear” mission statement. Spotify operates an unjust business model for artists and their attempt to dispel concerns about this only served to draw greater attention to their stingy payment structure.
But I argued that the implications of this for the average user and independent artist may not be to simply abandon the platform. Most of us are caught in its convenience trap. If artists are to have any hope of reaching a moderately sized fanbase, Spotify is now the necessary evil we all must contend with. Berating fans and bands alike for using it whilst ignoring the larger structural injustices that make the Spotify model legal is not helping anyone. Collective action such as that organised by Justice at Spotify are worthy causes, but without serious and sustained support they gain little traction.
But it seems this week’s news of CEO Daniel Ek ‘s investment in AI defence technology has finally put to rest any case we might make in Spotify’s favour. And a fresh call to ditch the platform once and for all is gaining momentum.
In light of these revelation, could we still make the case that we are asking too much of the consumer? Expecting them to understand complex business models and every backdoor deal that companies make in order to manufacture the products we interact with every day?
The music industry has always been unjust. Spotify is only the latest in a long line of corporations that have exploited it for profit. The main difference today seems to be its visibility in the public mind.
In the old days, when record purchases and radio where the chief means of accessing music, perhaps all but a portion of the population would have viewed the purchase of a record, a gig ticket, or a t-shirt as anything other than a direct financial contribution to the artist. Most may have been blissfully ignorant of the labels and booking agents all taking sizeable cuts in the background.
But today it’s a different story. Our monthly payments go directly to Spotify, and our relationship with the artist is mediated through their business model (and algorithmic nods toward its pre-packaged playlists). Such prominence in the public conscious means that a larger proportion of music listeners are willing to hold it to account.
In light of this week’s news however, some may still shrug it off. So what? They might think. The defence technology Spotify is investing in – which will use AI to support militaries in battlefield assessment operations – will only be sold to European democracies, and be undertaken “in an ethical, transparent and responsible manner”. Nations have a right to defend themselves and keep their populations safe. Part of that is ensuring that their militaries are up to date with the latest possible tech available. Spotify has simply made a business decision within this framework.
But let’s veer away from the rabbit hole of military ethics and defence spending in liberal democracies, and discuss this purely in the context of bringing money generated from art into this complex web. We pay taxes knowing that they go toward all sorts of things we don’t support. The military may be one of them. And however much I personally disapprove of my country’s actions overseas, I can acknowledge – at least in principle – that a well-funded military is still an essential component of living in a stable democracy.
However, in this instance we’re not talking about taxes, we’re talking about money we pay to access music; money we believe in good faith is at least in part going towards the artist. The bottom line of this week’s backlash against Spotify is that art should not be weaponised. Whatever your views on the ethics of defence tech, there is a particularly sinister undercurrent to using this particular financial pool to invest in weapons technology. Equally many artists are very concerned about how money generated from their labours of love are now being used in this way.
Our money as consumers and taxpayers disappears down all manner of vortexes entirely without our knowledge. One could go mad in researching and adjusting one’s life to ensure that only those companies with an entirely clean record receive our patronage. As long as we do good in one area, and campaign for structural change at the other, we cannot ask for much more from the already over-stretched individuals of late capitalism.
That doesn’t change the fact that in this particular instance, Spotify have crossed a line for many. But for those of us not willing to give up on the unlimited music we’ve been enjoying, we are left with the practical question of what to do next. The days of buying individual albums either physically or digitally are well and truly behind us. The question is how to make the streaming model both affordable and fair. In doing even some cursory research however, it’s far more complicated than simply switching to another platform. All come with their own issues.
Spotify’s pay per stream may be low, but individual tracks on Spotify are likely to receive far more streams than a smaller platform like Pandora or Napster. Spotify, Napster, Apple, and Google Play all operate a pro-rata model, meaning the revenue it pays out is apportioned according to which artists get the most streams each month. As explained on the Soundcharts Blog:
On the DSP [Digital Streaming Platform] side, services negotiate global payout rates with the content owners (mainly the major labels and Merlin, which represents a vast share of independent catalog)…this rate is likely to fall in the range from 60% to 70% for every streaming service out there, but let’s use the 70% for the sake of simplicity. The negotiated rate is applied to all service’s revenues, and the result is the total sum that the DSP will pay out to right holders. It’s a revenue pool that will be split between all artists on the platform. To divvy up that pie between the artists, DSP will calculate a “share of content” — the number of the artist streams divided by all streams on the platform.https://soundcharts.com/blog/music-streaming-rates-payouts
This essentially means that we all pay the larger artists on the platform – an Ed Sheeran or a Drake – even if we’ve never streamed a single thing by them. Our money not does directly go toward the artists we stream as it would for a direct album purchase on Bandcamp (minus the steep commission this platform extracts), and instead is part of a pool that is divvied up between various rights holders based on how many streams each one achieved. TIDAL is set to introduce an artist centred payment structure, but some may take issue with its co-owners who include Jay-Z and Kanye West, both hardly angelic figures. The majority stake of TIDAL has also now been sold to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, make of that what you will.
Ultimately, if the strength of this week’s outcry against Spotify is sincere, then people will be more than happy to do some digging online about the pros and cons of different platforms, and come to their own decision about what they’re comfortable with. Equally, we shouldn’t berate artists or independent labels for continuing to publish music on Spotify. It’s hard enough for them to make ends meet without attacking them for using what is still the best and easiest means for them to reach an audience.
Having said that, Hate Meditations has decided to cut all ties with the platform. This is a personal decision regarding where our money goes, how we support artists, and the least worst way to navigate that relationship given the meagre ethical choices available to us under capitalism. As long as I can help it, the money I set aside for supporting musicians will not go toward military technology however transparent and benign it purports to be. We’ll continue to push readers toward artists’ Bandcamp pages or just encouraging fans to buy music directly from the artist. All playlists will be moved to another platform.
In the meantime, stop berating each other for the personal lines we choose (or don’t chose) to draw, and instead continue to ask why every product we interact with should be so tainted by injustice.