Spotify doesn’t pay musicians fairly. And now it’s asking us to do its marketing for free?
This thought comes to my mind every December when I see someone tweeting about having streamed Ed Sheeran via Spotify for 5,000 hours during the year, or feigning embarrassment about the inclusion of Abba in the list of their top five most-played artists of the last 12 months. Spotify Wrapped – a feature made available to the platform’s users today – distils a year’s listening into statistics, such as your most-streamed songs, artists and genres. It claims to take a “deep dive” into your listening habits, producing a graphic that is easily shared on social media, and so often ends up trending on Twitter, offering ever more advertising for Spotify. I can’t stand it.
Songwriting and music-making may be an aspirational career, but there is labour involved – beyond the artists and including the writers, producers, instrumentalists, mixers and more. And while Spotify doesn’t disclose exactly how much it pays, industry experts suggest the rate is less than $0.004 per stream – an amount that is cut up by a record company and shared out between the many people who may have worked on a single song. That’s no way to make a living – never mind the fact that the touring industry (where artists often do stand a chance of making money) has been decimated by the pandemic over the last 20 months.
This is why I hate Spotify Wrapped (which should at least be called “Spotify Unwrapped”: it works as some kind of nauseating revelation after all). It’s a marketing tool – plain and simple – that the streaming platform dishes out as an attempt at a bit of fun. But its bright colours and “All is well here! Look how much music you’re streaming!” message obscures the sinister nature of Spotify’s power over the music industry and the artists no longer able to make a living from their music. It’s not fun when people’s livelihoods are at stake.
[See also: Ezra Pound’s experiments in sound]
I don’t blame the fans. Music listeners only want to support their favourite artists. Many musicians choose to promote Spotify’s services too, and I don’t blame them either: the horrible infrastructure of the current industry has left them with few viable alternatives than to suck up to streaming platforms, in the hope that they will appear on the most sought-after playlists. Fans want to please artists, and artists want to please Spotify to appeal to more fans – how can this loop of exploitation ever end?
If Spotify is going to continue encouraging its users (paying customers!) to do its marketing for free, despite being valued at $54bn, then I’d have thought it could afford to bump up its per-song rate. Apparently not. Last year, it even “experimented” with a new feature that would offer artists an algorithmic boost on playlists – for which musicians would have to take a cut in their already pitiful royalties.
If that’s not enough, we can of course go through all the other suspicious things Spotify and its CEO Daniel Ek (whose reported net worth is $4.7bn) have been up to in the past 12 months, such as the €1bn stake Ek’s tech investment group has made in Helsing, a “defence start-up” that will use AI to build battlefield maps in an “ethical, responsible and transparent way”. A truly inspiring use of music-loving customers’ subscription fees.
Besides, Spotify Wrapped’s insistence on breaking down the ethereal pleasures of music listening into hard, number-led data feels pretty joyless to me. Streaming has already taken away the tangible pleasures of a vinyl record or CD. We know it exploits artists. I won’t allow it to diminish the emotional power of my favourite music too.
This article was originally published on 1 December 2021.
[See also: The confessions of Robbie Williams]