Taylor Swift Vs. Spotify Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Unlubed Fist Of Commerce!

I am an indie artist who has sold over 50,000 copies of my albums with zero promotion, no management, and no label support. So when Spotify came along and began paying me 0.7 of a penny every time one of my songs was streamed on their service, believe me, I immediately began planning on where to put the new infinity pool.  Of course, they may as well just put it in Taylor Swift's yard, which is a total bummer because her music isn't even on Spotify.

That's because the music industry believes that the fraction of a penny an artist makes every time their song is streamed on Spotify is more than enough and that we artists should be happy with whatever we are given.

See, to most in the music industry, albums and songs are nothing more than product #'s on a spreadsheet.  Unfortunately, no spreadsheet tells of the supreme sacrifice of time, blood, sweat, tears, heartache, and loneliness that goes into making most albums.  To them, Taylor Swift is no different from Ben Gibbard or Sufjan Stevens, she just moves more units.

They couldn't be more wrong.

Pleasant as her music pay be to some, Taylor Swift is a product.  Oh, she may have you believe that she put her heart into her new album, but the credits that include many of the same names found on a Britney Spears album would suggest otherwise. Even so, by hitching its wagon to such disposable artists, the music industry has switched their focus from waging war oin consumers to waging war on artists, which they've done by selling out their own future for pennies on the dollar because, quite frankly, record executives never stay in one place too long, so what's their motivation for knocking themselves out to deliver something that the label can exploit quite profitably for the next five decades or so the way they did with Dark Side of the Moon or Rubber Soul?

Execs, like Wall Streeters, want their paydays now, hence the existence of more and more "here today, gone later today" pop fodder.

Which means that when they are faced with the notion of cutting a deal with Spotify now that would hogtie the income potential of every artist from Swift on down to, well, me, they do so because they really don't give a shit whether the industry lives or dies.  That would be like you showing up for work today and selling your company's products out of the back of your car for whatever you can get and your company being okay with it.

Of course, by doing that, they not only devalue the product, but also the income potential of artists who SHOULD be able to quit their gig at the Gap when their album goes platinum,  Heck, until Swift's latest album came along, NO artist's album had gone platinum this year.

How can that be, you ask?  It wasn't so long ago that albums left and right were going platinum.

Well, yes, that was before Spotify.  Before Napster, even.  Funny that there's one guy associated with both companies who, oddly enough, is a billionaire thanks to the music industry despite having never written a single song.  That would be Sean Parker, the guy who single-handedly got the labels to play ball with Spotify by basically telling them to take the deal or face outright annihilation.

The labels - completely oblivious to the fact that they were holding ALL the cards - buckled like a cheap lawn chair under the weight of an ant.  Of course, that ant was Sean Parker, who made the three remaining major label entities part owners of the service, which, let's face it, is never going to be profitable because the key to their success relies on them giving music away for free in hopes of convincing consumers to pay for the very same service minus a few commercial interruptions and banner ads.

That's like Starbucks giving their coffee away in cups with paid advertisements on them in hopes that enough consumers will pay for the exact same coffee, minus the ads on the cup.  In other words, it's a losing proposition.

Swift knows this.  She also knows that she wouldn't sell nearly as many albums if folks were able to "try before they buy", which is Spotify's main draw to those of us who still buy physical product.

How will this play out, you ask?  Good question.

Perhaps the best future for the music business lies in the establishment of a service not unlike Netflix, wherein consumers can stream an artist's new album after the initial sales of physical and downloads have subsided, much like a movie's theatrical run coming to an end.  As it stands, the way music is released these days is akin to Netflix making a movie available to stream the same day that it hits theaters.

There's a reason the movie industry doesn't do that and it has everything to do with GETTING PAID.  I mean, if that's good enough for Tom Cruise and Steve Buscemi, it should be good enough for Taylor Swift, Ben Gibbard or Sufjan Stevens.

Superior St. Rehearsal Facility

1 comment:

  1. Darren, you're right on the money with your focus on the way that music streaming services, like Spotify, operate and (more importantly) pay artists to deliver music to its customers. Spotify, according to my recent and exhausting fifteen-second Internet search, has 40 million registered members, of which 25% are paying members. Netflix too has about 40 million members, but ALL pay. And unlike Spotify, Netflix competes with broadcast TV, cable TV, Hulu and God-knows-how-many-other video delivery systems.

    In my case, I use Spotify like I use a lending library, albeit like a lending library that I pay no taxes to support. If I want to hear what artists I've read about sound like, I go to Spotify like I used to go to libraries to look at books, and used to enjoy wandering around at actual bookstores. With Spotify, I have to endure :15 and :30 commercial breaks every 15:00 or so.

    Just like radio. Or just like radio used to be.

    My point here is that to artists, music is not a commodity. To longtime listeners like myself, most music is commodity-like, but the artists I like and follow and whose music I purchase are different. Some are true artists, while others are more ... ahem ... product-oriented.

    So the real question is not "Why is Taylor Swift popular?" (because many people like her, of course) but "Why do 100% of Netflix customers pay for Netflix, and only 25% of Spotify customers pay for Spotify?"

    I think it has to do with the role advertising plays in Spotify's business model, and NOT in that of Netflix. In my own mind, I see nothing wrong with conventional advertising apart from it being a colossal waste of time. Yet three-fourths of Spotify's users pay nothing. Zilch. Nada. Including moi.

    To make things even more complicated is that Netflix produces original content (shows and series) because THAT'S where Netflix can keep attracting new customers and better compete with other video services. When will Spotify do so?

    Who knows? Maybe never. And probably because of ad revenue.

    Finally, whereas Netflix must negotiate for continued use of legacy product (old films) as well as new, it appears that the limited power of (the formerly powerful) major record companies puts them AND individual artists behind the eight ball with regard to Spotify and similar music streaming services, and in much the way that Amazon and electronic book publishing have eaten away at the power (which was never all THAT great) of conventional publishers.

    So what's the answer to all this? First of all, I think it's possible to love what Taylor's doing and still not care a whit about her music. Second is for the major minors (like Yep Roc, Merge, Sub Pop and the like) to realize and act upon the notion that THEIR futures depend on gaining control of the way that their product (and yes, it's product) is distributed to benefit themselves (as companies) and their artists. And third is to finally give up the notion that artists can't have their own commercial interests in sight and still be artists. Promotion is business. Cover art is business. High-quality recordings is business. Good lines of product distribution is business. It is quite possible to maintain personal integrity AND make money, but NOT with Spotify as your means of distribution. And I know when you hear a term such as “means of distribution,” either your eyes glaze over or you think, “Hey, that sounds commie to me!” but it’s neither, It’s more like union organizing, and organizing to fight to protect your interests, which in this case just happen to be financial.

    It’s a hell of a lot better than where things stand now.