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22 March 2024

How Spotify won

Taylor Swift, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Thom Yorke have all boycotted the streaming giant. Eventually, all of them gave up.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In January 2022, I felt hopeful. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell had pulled their extensive back-catalogues from Spotify after the influential podcaster Joe Rogan spread vaccine misinformation on the streaming platform. On The Joe Rogan Experience, one of the world’s most popular podcasts, then hosted exclusively on Spotify, Rogan promoted baseless conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccine. Young, who had polio as a child and has long been a proponent of vaccination, would not allow his music to sit alongside such misinformation. “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” the musician said.

Two days after Young’s songs had vanished from Spotify, so had Joni Mitchell’s. “Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives. I stand in solidarity with Neil Young and the global scientific and medical communities on this issue,” said Mitchell, who also suffered from polio as a child.

Finally, I thought, artists are standing up to Spotify. And not just any artists, but two of the most influential musicians alive today. Together Young and Mitchell’s back catalogues comprise thousands of songs, which are adored – and listened to – by millions of fans from all age groups across the world. The hole in Spotify’s side would be significant.

But their resistance did not last. This month, after two years, Young returned his music to Spotify, and Mitchell has this week followed suit. The Joe Rogan Experience is no longer available only on Spotify, after Rogan signed a reported $250m (£196m) deal that allows it to be distributed on other platforms such as Apple Podcasts, YouTube and Amazon Music. Mitchell made no comment about the move. But Young explained why he changed his mind: “My decision comes as music services Apple and Amazon have started serving the same disinformation podcast features I had opposed at Spotify. I cannot just leave Apple and Amazon, like I did Spotify, because my music would have very little streaming outlet to music lovers at all, so I have returned to Spotify.”

All streaming platforms are as bad as each other, Young seemed to say, so what’s the point in leaving just one out? He stopped short of taking the logical next step: to remove his music from Spotify, Apple and Amazon altogether, in a bid to demonstrate to his vast fanbase how the streaming giants are wrecking the industry – on numerous levels.

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The Young/Mitchell boycott was just the latest failed attempt at protesting against Spotify, which was founded by the Swedish entrepreneur Daniel Ek in 2006. The platform gives fans access to almost all commercial songs ever recorded for free – or, if you choose the ad-free version, just £10.99 a month. Its competitors – including Apple Music, Amazon Music and YouTube – offer similar models, but Spotify is by far and away the most popular, with 602 million users including 236 million subscribers in more than 180 countries.

Streaming has revolutionised music – at the cost of the artist. Young’s boycott was unusual: political in a very practical way, and so personal, given his childhood polio experience. The many artists who have previously stood up to the platform have mostly done so to protest poor financial remuneration for artists: a Spotify stream is worth less than $0.004, hardly a proper reflection of the work that goes into writing, arranging, recording and producing a song. Over the last decade artists including Coldplay, Adele and Beyoncé have withheld their music from Spotify in the initial months following an album’s release, encouraging fans to instead purchase a download, CD or vinyl copy. Almost always, there has been an initial proclamation of defiance, followed by a quiet giving in. “I know that streaming music is the future, but it’s not the only way to consume music,” Adele told Time in 2015, confirming that her new album, 25, wouldn’t be available to stream anywhere. Just seven months later the record was available to stream on Spotify, as well as on rival platforms.

Countless other musicians have made similar pledges that have not stuck. In 2014 Taylor Swift pulled her catalogue from Spotify, after saying that “valuable things should be paid for. It is my opinion that music should not be free.” Her reasoning for reintroducing her music to the service in 2017 was to “thank her fans” for over 10 million sales of her album 1989. I’ve earned enough from this one now, she seemed to say, I can afford to give the rest away! Of course, for an artist of Swift’s stature – as of this month, she has more than 103 million monthly listeners on Spotify – there is always more money to be made. She was the platform’s most-streamed artist in 2023, which, according to estimates, earned her over $100m. Boycotts, she learned, don’t pay.

Even Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who famously called Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”, gave up his boycott. In 2013 he and Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s producer, pulled all of the band’s music from the platform in protest of its business model. By June 2016 all nine Radiohead albums had resurfaced on the platform, and the following year, Yorke’s solo material was back too.

Is there anything we can do to reclaim the world of music from the hands of a few profit-obsessed tech entrepreneurs? The Grammy Award-winning artist James Blake thinks he has a solution in Vault, a subscription service he launched this week after a series of viral tweets about the poor state of streaming royalty payments. Vault is a direct artist-to-fan platform. Listeners pay $5 a month to have access to an artist’s “vault”, a database of unreleased material. The idea is that the set-up incentivises artists to make the music they want to make, rather than relying on their label to green-light songs according to their potential for virality.

It’s a noble idea from a prominent artist clearly bereft at the state of the industry. But it is not without its critics, some of whom have suggested the platform is no different to Patreon, the subscription service that was founded in 2013. Clearly, Vault is no real threat to Spotify – the brilliance of Ek’s platform is that it holds almost all the music you could ever want to listen to – and so Blake’s initiative will just serve as an add-on for obsessive fans who are willing to pay that bit more for otherwise unreleased deep cuts. But how many Vault supporters would an artist need for it to be financially worthwhile? Is it only acts who already have significant followings, such as Blake, who will ever see a proper return from it? (In which case, is it any better than Spotify anyway?) And why doesn’t Blake first try listing his music on Bandcamp, the popular online marketplace that has been praised for its financial model, one that sees artists taking home approximately 82 per cent of each sale?

I’m not feeling optimistic. Spotify has devalued music like Amazon Prime has devalued human labour. When I tell people that I buy CDs – my attempt to more directly financially support the artists I love – most seem genuinely confused as to why I bother. The world-famous artists who boycotted streaming and then pivoted back prove their point. The problem is not just that Spotify doesn’t pay artists fairly, but that it has totally recalibrated how we perceive the value of music at all. I fear there’s no way back.

[See also: I hate Spotify Wrapped]

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