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The Nu-Normal #01: We Need to Talk About Spotify
2020 Wrapped and the inevitable rush of ambivalent hot takes.
Like most millennials with a passive-aggressive relationship to the Internet, I have mixed feelings about Spotify.
Admittedly, I was a late bloomer to the platform. I’m the guy who only plunged into the depths of the streaming dark side a few years ago when I realised that Chapo Trap House podcasts and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Punk-O-Rama playlists were a really good way to kill time as a maligned corporate wage-slave. And with the release of the highly coveted 2020 Wrapped summaries for its 300 million-plus users last week, a plethora of think-pieces and hot takes surfaced online dredging up the more problematic aspects of the Swedish streaming giant.
In a provocative piece for Slate, Heather Schwedel details how the “sinister grift” of Spotify’s annual Wrapped feature revolves around making users feel like special uber-fans who make up some nebulous fractional percentile of an artist’s global fanbase, while simultaneously disguising the vast demographic data collection activity occurring under right our noses.
I mean, sure, did I listen to Alfredo a whole lot this year? Absolutely. Does it stroke my ego to be called a “Pioneer” for discovering new artists and genres and singles before they blow up and go viral? Damn straight. But when I can also see—right down to the last digit—exactly how many thousands of minutes I’ve spent plugged into the Spotify app, or how many months I’ve been marked as ‘Active’ in some subterranean Scandinavian data server… well, things get more than a little creepy. And that’s not to say anything about the platform’s longstanding issues concerning artist royalties and remuneration.
Writing for Rolling Stone, columnist Tim Ingham catalogues how Spotify has become embroiled in several problematic PR exposés over the last few years, outlining how the streaming giant actively cultivates a business model that relies on meagre per-stream payments for artists and music industry stakeholders. In 2017, Spotify announced new deals with major and independent labels, where parties agreed to lower the share of pro-rated net revenue record companies would receive from the platform.
Additionally, last year saw Spotify, alongside other tech companies like Amazon, Pandora, and Google, legally object to agreed royalty rate rises for songwriters in the United States. As Ingham notes, thanks to the advent and proliferation of streaming services, the music industry has seemingly recovered from the mid-00s earnings slump and Napster rage and is once again printing money like the good ol’ days. But the real question is this: Who gets to keep it?
Let’s look at an example. It’s December and almost time for everyone’s favourite holiday season. If you walk into any retail outlet right now, the chances are that you’ll hear Mariah Carey’s 90s smash hit, “All I Want for Christmas is You” at least 600 times in a single day. That’s just a cold, hard fact.
Looking at Spotify’s Australian chart for this week, Carey’s single is currently up at #16. Not bad for a song that’s nearly 30 years old. In Quartz, Ephrat Livni writes about how Carey’s Christmas tune broke Spotify records back in 2018, racking up almost 11 million listens in a single day. A massive success by any artist’s standard.
However, therein lies the rub. With Spotify paying around $0.006 to $0.0084 USD per play, even assuming the highest price is paid out, this record-breaking day only nets Carey $92,400. And this figure must then be split between her record label, producers, songwriters, and other peripheral third parties. As Livni notes, “Mariah Carey is not a struggling musician, obviously. She’s super popular… her net worth is over $500 million. She’s won five Grammys.”
And yet, netting a paltry $92,400 for a record-breaking day of streaming, for a single that’s accumulated over $60 million in royalties since its release and sold 100 million copies, seems pitiful by comparison to traditional sales metrics.
Of course, I don’t personally give a shit about Mariah Carey or her streaming revenue. She’s doing just fine. But if that’s how one of the biggest artists on the planet is treated by the world’s premier streaming giant, then spare a thought for the small-time bands, indie artists, and labels simply trying to make ends meet. Even on a good day or week or month, they’ll be lucky to break even for recording and promotional costs purely based on streaming performance numbers.
The point here being that every time 2020 Wrapped points out how much of a good fan I am to Misery Signals, or how many times I’ve listened to “Harmony of the Spheres,” deep down I know that Spotify isn’t really paying any of my fan-love forward to the artists themselves. And, to make matters worse, it feels like they’re using me and others across the Internet to share and comment about their 2020 Wrapped for them, and likely relishing in all the free publicity. Spotify even had the nerve to launch an ‘Artist Fundraising Pick’ initiative back in April, instead of—oh, I don’t know—just paying artists what they deserve. It’s a ballsy move; I’ll give them that.
To me, this is the insidious side of Spotify’s “sinister grift”. I’m not sure if you know this, but 2020 fucking sucked. It’s been a brutal year full of unprecedented change and upheaval the world over. The global entertainment industry has been left utterly decimated. Many music professionals are out of work, unable to tour or adhere to prior release schedules, and many are being forced to innovate alternative modes of production to maintain their existing fanbases and keep their dreams alive.
Now, look, creativity in times of crisis isn’t inherently bad, and the isolation of quarantine has resulted in new and interesting audio-visual prospects for a range of artists. (See: Code Orange, Gwar, Jeff Rosenstock, Darkest Hour, Terror, Metallica, and many, many more.) But when traditional modes of music distribution and gatekeeper corporate conglomerates like Spotify steadfastly refuse to support “the people who make their platform possible,” then this mood of highly socialised, analytical fervour surrounding the 2020 Wrapped phenomenon rings a little hollow to me.
So, support the artists you like with a direct donation through PayPal or Patreon. Buy their merch. Watch their live streams. Get your physical and digital media from places like Bandcamp and other more artist-centric platforms. Because, ultimately, Spotify doesn’t give a shit about artists—but we should.