It is good to see Spotify suffer, at least in the short term. The Swedish streaming service has fostered a music-distribution model that is singularly hostile to the interests of working musicians. It pays out, on average, an estimated four-tenths of a cent per stream, meaning that a thousand streams nets around four dollars. That arrangement has reaped huge profits for major labels and for superstars while decimating smaller-scale musical incomes—as perfect an embodiment of the winner-takes-all neoliberal economy as has yet been devised. Various artists have tried to stand up to Spotify over the years; Neil Young is the first who might be causing the company real harm. He recently asked for his music to be removed in response to the peddling of COVID-19 misinformation by the podcaster Joe Rogan, who has a licensing deal with Spotify reportedly worth a hundred million dollars or more. Joni Mitchell followed suit, saying that “irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives.” Even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been “expressing concerns.”
As welcome as the protests are, they do not address the fundamental injustice of the streaming economy. Young conspicuously failed to mention Spotify’s payment structure in his statement, although he did complain about audio quality. He invited fans to listen to his music on Amazon and Apple Music, where payouts to artists are larger but not exactly lavish. Ross Grady, a mainstay of the North Carolina music scene, got to the heart of the matter on Twitter: “I love that people are looking for alternatives to Spotify and I don’t know how to explain to them that it has never been ethical or sustainable to expect to have unfettered access to the entire history of recorded music for $10/month.”
To be sure, the issue that Young brings up is real and dire. Rogan has argued that “healthy” young people don’t need to get vaccinated for COVID-19; he has advocated using the antiparasitic drug ivermectin against the virus; and he has claimed that COVID vaccines increase the risk of myocarditis. The epidemiologist Katrine Wallace has called Rogan a “menace to public health.” Over the weekend, Daniel Ek, Spotify’s billionaire C.E.O., promised to provide a “content advisory” for podcast COVID discussions, while falling back on a predictable defense: “It is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor.” The Big Tech companies routinely hide behind free-speech rhetoric when something ghastly is said or done on their platforms. It is a cowardly song and dance that Shoshana Zuboff brilliantly lacerates in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.”
Ek makes for a quotable villain, yet the rage against Spotify falls into a familiar American pattern: instead of addressing systemic issues, we stage morality plays involving the misdeeds of individuals. One miscreant falls, another rises, and the song remains the same. Young, to his credit, has made a quantifiable sacrifice: without Spotify, his royalties will suffer, although he may receive a compensatory boost from youngsters who approve of his stance. Are consumers willing to sacrifice as well? The magic of Spotify is its convenience. You can get almost any music you want, any time. Apple Music offers you the same gorgeous infinitude. What if, in order to support musicians that you care about, you were asked to give up the very idea that all music should be available on demand?
There may be no going back. One of the original sins of the Internet era was the radical devaluation of musical labor that took place with the rise of Napster. A couple of generations have come of age with the expectation that music is not something you should have to pay for. The morality play of that era involved the misdeeds of record labels, who had a long history of exploiting musicians, and who responded to file sharing by suing college students. Goliath was slain; music was liberated. The major labels soon had their revenge, though. Napster was shut down, and more corporate-friendly regimes took its place. Apple’s iTunes, which came first, was more than fair in its payments to artists: if you owned your masters, you could get seventy cents on the dollar. But it ripped music out of context, reducing physical recordings to bundles of data. Spotify completed the cycle of devaluation, reducing payouts to almost nothing and obliterating artistic identity through the operation of its notorious algorithm.
Add to this the fact that Spotify, like all forms of streaming, is environmentally destructive, consuming more energy than the music-distribution systems of previous eras.
When revenues from record sales plummeted, artists were told that they could still make a decent living from touring, merchandising, and so forth. Ek gave further sage advice in a 2020 interview: “You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough . . . It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.” He went on to suggest that artists emulate Taylor Swift, who, with the release of “folklore,” had just scored nearly ninety-eight million streams in a single day. The message is clear enough: to thrive in the streaming era, all you need to do is to attain such mammoth, oxygen-depleting fame that a piddling four-tenths of a cent can be multiplied into hundreds of thousands of dollars. To those with much, more will be given. The coldness of the logic became starkly clear when the pandemic shut down touring, wiping out those who were eking out a livelihood on the road.
Spotify, like Facebook and Amazon, has the advantage of being odiously indispensable. No matter how much people grow to hate the service, they cannot envision life without it. Those who have jettisoned their record collections are unlikely to begin buying individual albums again. This cycle of addiction and dependence is at the core of Big Tech’s domination, together with the well-worn argument of technological fatalism: change is inevitable, resistance is futile, the empire always wins. Odium can, however, motivate political action. The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers has been making incremental progress with its “Justice at Spotify” campaign. A parliamentary inquiry into the economics of music streaming was launched in the U.K. in 2020, and a U.N. report includes a proposal for a dedicated streaming royalty. In the meantime, equitable alternatives exist: Bandcamp, Resonate, Ampled.
You can also do the old-fashioned thing and buy an album. I recently wrote about Stephen Hough’s superb recording of the Chopin Nocturnes, on the Hyperion label. Hyperion is one of relatively few labels that have stood aloof from the streaming world; they don’t even participate in IDAGIO, a classical-only service. Simon Perry, the label’s director, told Strings magazine, “Everybody reads about how brilliant streaming is for the record business. It’s not. We spent £1.4m . . . last year just to get the audio made. I’ve got to generate the income from sales to pay for that audio. If I turn on streaming, I’ll never pay for that.” On Twitter, Hough offered a more specific explanation for his album’s absence from most streaming services: “We had to pay the piano tuner :-).”