The Needle and the Damage Done: Spotify, Capitalism, and Alternative Listening
By Sophie Severs
“Hey, what’s your Spotify?”
This is how I have made the majority of my friends. We pull out our phones, swap usernames, and proceed to stalk one another’s profiles.
“Oh wow, I love that song!” and “Woah, your playlists are so cool!” are commonplace in conversation as a beautiful friendship blossoms.
Spotify: the music lover’s paradise. With the help of this streaming platform, a treasure trove of music is just a simple tap away. The service offers endless avenues for personal expression— one’s creativity is unlimited through the curation of playlists with names like “emo hours in my bag,” “midnight cowboy” and “dancing in my room bc i’m a quaranTEEN”— what is there not to love?
Though Spotify is not all that it seems. Behind the glamor of “Discover Weekly” playlists and the ever-so-anticipated “Spotify Wrapped” lies a darker underbelly.
Speculation around the platform’s ulterior motives is nothing new, but has recently increased after Spotify's decision to "chase the money" and keep Joe Rogan's Podcast on the streaming platform. Many artists have pulled their music from the service, following in the footsteps of folk giants Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, who removed their music from the platform in protest of Rogan’s podcast promoting the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. Since then, many artists on the platform have banded together, asserting that Spotify must choose between their discographies or Rogan’s podcast. Yet Spotify has clung to Rogan’s side, bending only a little by issuing a content warning before his podcast.
Companies want to stick to where the money comes from and that is, in essence, what companies do— but Spotify’s actions felt like a personal attack to many. It left loyal users thinking “Really, Spotify? We thought you were our friend.” In fact, according to Business Insider, web traffic to Spotify’s cancellation page majorly increased after Young’s music was pulled.
This occurrence only sheds light on a much larger issue at hand. As much as it might hurt to say, Spotify is not our friend. The platform is a company, and has a monopoly over all other music streaming services. Ultimately, the thing that Spotify cares the most about is not our funky little playlists and feeding our musical superiority complexes, and certainly not the careers of the artists whose music we love so much, but rather their own profits and economic gain— something that we honestly should not be surprised by.
Frankly, Spotify is doing what most companies do, but that definitely does not mean that what they are doing is right. Obviously, Young and Mitchell are not in a position of dire monetary need from Spotify royalties, but other artists who wish to speak out on this issue might not want to jeopardize their incomes by doing so.
Spotify only pays its artists between $0.0033 and $0.0054 per stream. Not all of that money ends up in the artist’s pockets either. According to Business Insider, “When Spotify pays artists, they tally the total number of streams for each of an artist's songs, and determine who owns each song and who distributes it. First, the rights holders are paid. Next, the distributor is paid (this may be the same as the rights holder in some cases). And finally, [the artist is] paid.” Canadian record producer and musician Greg Wells posted an infographic to his Instagram account on Jan. 30, showing his followers how much money 100,000,000 streams would give him on the platform. He expressed his frustration in said post, “If a song that I wrote with two other songwriters gets played 100,000,000 times on Spotify, I make less than $7000. ONE HUNDRED MILLION PLAYS. Does that sound right to you?”
Wells is not the only artist feeling defeated by these circumstances. In 2019, The Creative Independent surveyed 298 musicians for input on the current atmosphere of the music industry. With the information noted before, it should be no surprise that “the vast majority of musicians cannot earn a living wage through music-related work.” In fact, the majority of a musician’s income comes from touring and selling merchandise, which the COVID-19 pandemic tragically put a hold on, leaving many artists scrambling to find ways to survive.
Naturally, “when asked which sector(s) of the music industry most need to change, by far the largest percentage of industry professionals (61%) singled out streaming platforms.” Subscriber fees of many platforms wind up in the bank accounts of company executives, rather than providing hard working musicians with their rightful dues.
Not only does much of the money from subscriptions go straight to executives, but also to those who win the musical popularity contest. Journalist Julia O’Driscoll for The Week quotes New York Times journalist Ben Sisario, explaining that many streaming services utilize a “pro rata” paying method, as in “the total earnings from subscriptions and adverts ‘goes into a single pot’ before being divided by the total streams for the month. ‘If, say, Drake had 5% of all streams that month, he (and the companies that handle his music) get 5% of the pot.’” Odds are against smaller artists who are not represented by large labels, while bigger artists get huge payouts.
Needless to say, musicians are largely exploited by these streaming platforms. While it might be a harrowing time for musicians, many believe that the industry is not completely doomed— it might just need a little bit of fine tuning. The Creative Independent asked those surveyed what they believed would create more equity within the industry, and various “musicians championed the potential of collectives, local scenes, and more collaborative efforts to promote fair pay, diversity, and equity” as major things to work toward.
We as consumers have the ability to stand up for the artists we love, and have many options that can help make the music industry a better place (for both artists and their fans)!
Bandcamp is “an online record store and music community where passionate fans discover, connect with, and directly support the artists they love.” The platform offers a way for artists to be directly impacted by their fans' actions.
Here's how it works: “When a fan buys something on Bandcamp, an average of 82% of the money goes to the artist or their label — typically in 24-48 hours — and the remainder covers [Bandcamp’s] revenue share and payment processor fees.” It’s basically a win-win situation for everyone. According to the site, “Fans have paid artists $883 million using Bandcamp, and $208 million in the last year.”
Bandcamp accounts are completely free to make, and there is no subscription fee to keep up with. One only has to purchase the work of a musician of choice once, and it is forever theirs to stream or download.
During the pandemic, Bandcamp started something called “Bandcamp Fridays,” in which the platform waives their revenue shares on all sales for the day. On Bandcamp Fridays “an average of 93% of your money reaches the artist/label (after payment processor fees)” rather than the typical 82% (which is still a hefty amount nonetheless).
The next bandcamp Fridays are March 4th, April 1st, and May 6th, so get those wallets ready!
Create a Bandcamp account here.
Resonate Co-Op is exactly what it sounds like: a member-owned and member-controlled business that exists to directly support its members.
Like Bandcamp, a Resonate account is completely free of charge to make. The platform uses a “stream-to-own model” — the rules are simple: “To listen to music, buy credits for your account: 5, 10, 15 etc. Each time you listen to a song, you spend a small fraction of your credit. With our model, the money you spend goes directly to the artists you listen to, and you only pay when you're actually listening.”
In what many companies do through hundreds— even thousands— of streams, Resonate accomplishes in a mere nine without breaking a sweat. Nine plays makes a song yours to enjoy until the end of time, and “as a result, the cost of using Resonate decreases over time, as music is added to your collection.” Does that sound like a good deal or what?
In addition to that, Resonate guarantees at least one cent per play for every artist who puts their music on the platform. Resonate’s goal is to rid the industry of the monopolistic hierarchies that continually bamboozle musicians out of fair payment. The co-op is well on their way to making this vision a reality through allowing their artists to have direct jurisdiction over what they do with their music.
Resonate Co-Op is working toward a more equitable and fair industry, one stream at a time.
Create a Resonate account here.
Of course, one of the major draws to streaming platforms like Spotify is the fact that users receive a highly personalized experience, especially with the release of the highly beloved “Spotify Wrapped” in December of every year.
I would like to introduce you to Last.fm, your new best friend.
Last.fm is an app that tracks users’ music activity on a multitude of streaming services, giving them personalized recommendations inspired by their listening habits. Users receive a detailed listening report not once a year, but once a week. Extremely detailed records of your listening habits are just a click away. The app also includes the social aspect that Spotify has, as it will provide users with new “neighbors”— people who share similar listening habits. Last.fm does all of this for free, though it does offer a $3 per month membership for increased customization and access to stats.
Create a Last.fm account here.
It is not really an overstatement to say that the future of the music industry is in our hands (and ears) as consumers and patrons of art.
Yes, taking the leap from one platform to a completely foreign one can be daunting, but trading your Spotify library for being able to positively impact the lives of your favorite artists seems like a worthy sacrifice.
If we want the artists we love to continue to be able to provide us with music, we must find ways to provide them with sustainable and equitable livelihoods— it is honestly the least we can do for the people who have given us the soundtrack to our lives.
However, if changing streaming platforms does not seem like a feasible option for you at this time, there are plenty of other options that help to support musicians.
Sometimes it is easiest to start locally, and thankfully Boston has a bustling local music scene!
If you are a folk fan, historic Club Passim located in Cambridge’s Harvard Square regularly hosts traveling folk artists along with a weekly virtual or in-person open mic night. Students additionally receive a free membership to Passim with a valid ID!
Though if you’re looking for a little bit of everything, the Bebop on Boylston features different music acts nightly, with guests playing genres from jazz to traditional bluegrass.
Classical music fans can find their niche at performances produced by the New England Conservatory, which are free and open to the public!
One obviously cannot forget that just down the street from Emerson is the renowned Berklee School of Music, which has a multitude of student musicians performing on a stacked event calendar!
Boston’s lively music scene is teeming with talent that is just waiting to be discovered.
And thus, I leave you with a quote from Neil Young: keep on “Rockin’ in the Free World” and support musicians!