Spotify Clapped

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“Our mission is to unlock the potential of human creativity—by giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by their creators.” These are the lofty ideals alleged to have driven Spotify to their spot at the top of the music streaming pile. The current reality however, is one of intense struggle, burn out and unlivable wages for pretty much everyone except Joe Rogan, Drake and the company’s senior management. But this failure to live up to their own principles is not because the river has run dry, far from it. In 2020, music streaming revenue grew to $13.4 billion worldwide from 11.4 billion the previous year and is predicted to reach $37 billion by 2030 with Spotify being one of the main benefactors of that growth. The reason for artists feeling disrespected and undervalued within their own industry comes as a direct result of this growth. As labels and streaming platforms have vied for position in this exploding market, it has become a race to the bottom to see who can hyper-exploit artists the most. It is little wonder then, that artists like Skee Mask are beginning to jump ship in protest of Spotify’s inability to provide “value, respect, or space”.

Skee Mask’s social media post regarding Spotify

With this piece, I wanted to put together a sort of spiritual successor to an article I wrote 18 months ago about the potential mental health benefits of streaming recommendation algorithms. The science of that piece was used to demonstrate how the close relationship between music and emotion could be harnessed to regulate mood and mental health outcomes in depressed individuals. I still strongly believe that specific algorithms used to recommend the right music could, in a lot of cases, lead to improved emotional stability for listeners, but I’ve also come to believe that material conditions are a far more important priority in improving lives (shocker, I know). There is a certain glamorous appeal to applying the most cutting edge technologies to old world problems like mental health that attracts the business- and scientific-minded alike. However, these methods are often used to simply paper over issues that could be far more effectively tackled by providing means for people to increase their own sense of fulfilment in life, their connections within a community, and their financial stability. 

This is perfectly distilled by Spotify’s response to the crushing impact of the pandemic on musicians’ livelihoods. Immediately following one in a long series of legal battles to try and reduce royalty rates in March of 2020, Spotify announced their COVID-19 Music Relief project to outsource the solution to their problem of suffering artists. Rather than committing to better compensation, they instead chose to partner with a number of music charities who could offer financial advice to those struggling because of that compensation. They also offered to match donations to those charities of up to $10 million (around 0.11% of their total revenue that year) to those most in need as well as a cross promotion with the fintech service Cash App that added another $1 million in relief (an extra 0.01%). This tragedy turned brand partnership opportunity is unfortunately emblematic of the true relationship between Spotify and personal wellbeing: cheap gesturing towards an ineffective solution for a problem it is largely responsible for.

To give an understanding of how this problem has come about and how the pandemic laid it bare for all to see, I’ll briefly rundown their payment system and highlight the bizarrely cruel details of it. You may think that your subscription fee is divided up on the basis of which artists you listen to, but instead Spotify offers a kind of winner takes all tontine where your money is carved up between all artists on the basis of their proportion of total streams across all users. This means that the more one artist makes, the less another will make, so that even if you exclusively stream your favourite avant garde noise album, the vast majority of your subscription fee is going to people like Ed Sheeran, Bad Bunny and Dua Lipa. This, in turn, has created an astonishing wealth gap where the bottom 98.6% of earners take home just $12 per month while Spotify’s ten highest-earners have earned a combined $337,485,479. It is also worth considering here that included in the top 100 highest earners this year were people like Chris Brown, DaBaby and 6ix9ine whose lifestyles you directly contribute towards with your subscription. For Spotify to achieve their stated goal of “giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art” with this payment model in place and all other things being equal, the user base and number of platformed artists would have to grow roughly 23 times over. So without over half the Earth’s population becoming Spotify users and/or creators, it is unclear how Spotify will fulfil this quota.

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With streaming platforms only offering a pittance to those who allow them to thrive, artists have turned to touring to make their living. In the pre-internet age, musicians would make their money on record sales and tour at a loss. Then, digital media caused things to flip and musicians would use records to promote the tours that would earn them their money. Now, streaming has squeezed any remaining value out of records, plunging the value of a track to $0.004, leaving only touring which has obviously not been a reliable source of income for anyone over the last two years. A complete overhaul of a major industry, entirely within this century, with the final blow being dealt by a company who were once heralded as saviours, arriving on the scene to rescue the artform from the clutches of online piracy. For all their talk of providing artists with a path to live their dreams, Spotify has actively destroyed most other paths to success and provided only one very narrow, awkward one for a select few. A path which requires the artist to be constantly creating new music in accordance with what will satiate the algorithm this month. A path which requires the artist to take on a second job as their own social media manager or, if they’re lucky, outsource the work to an army of fans willing to blast social media with calls to stream this month’s release. A path which requires many millions of streams to even approach financial viability without touring as a supplementary income source. When this is the primary solution the industry offers for its growing labour crisis and the government response is worse than a shrug, it seems inevitable that music will continue to become less accessible to those without preexisting financial support to potentially outlast many years without return on investment. When even well established bands cannot survive on 10 million annual streams without income relief from the state, it becomes obvious that there will be a thinning of the ranks that will first target the voices that are already marginalised.

HM Government

I had once [link] hoped that their position at the forefront of streaming would lead them to wild and wonderful innovations using algorithms. The reality, however, is that their relationship with artificial intelligence is a key element of Spotify’s worst impacts on the music industry and the world at large. When it comes to their stifling effect on artistic ingenuity, The Baffler’s Liz Pelley said it best

“Over time, the goals of the platform become the goals of its recommendations, and then the goals of the platform become the goals of the music. The platform largely rewards music that does well in the background, as opposed to the foreground. Music that can remain a background experience, like emotional wallpaper. This has led in general to an aesthetic flattening. By design, the data-driven playlist environment favours the sounds that sound most seamless, the most unobtrusive, the most passive, and the most unlikely to cause a skip. ”

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So, in designing an algorithm to keep you passively hooked into the app for as many minutes as possible, they have created a system that rewards the most bland and inoffensive musical mush. In one sense artists are rewarded for falling in line with the algorithm’s demands for hip-hop style beats and emo lyrics in that they can see their streams increase, but the company is clearly searching for ways to exploit that. In true Spotify fashion, the company filed a patent for an invention that harnesses artificial intelligence to automatically detect musical plagiarism within their library. It will undoubtedly be rolled out in the same way YouTube branded their Content ID system, as an exciting new form of protection from intellectual property theft for small creators. But it seems more than likely that it will also end up functioning in much the same way as Content ID, by unfairly and often mistakenly punishing independent artists for minor or perceived infractions and syphoning even more away to those at the top. Say an artist tries to fit the algorithmic mould of a modern pop song but, God forbid, they accidentally happen across the same chord progression as a Taylor Swift song. All it takes is for the detection software to sniff it out before the last of their record sales are being sucked into the insane financial puzzle box that is Spotify. 

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None of this is to say that the algorithms don’t work for listeners, they work just well enough to give you that same same but different every single time. Where it completely falls short for me though, is the level of engagement with an artist that it provides. By constantly spewing background music that never challenged me as a listener, it turned lovingly made pieces of art into bites of content that served primarily to soundtrack my errands and satiate any nostalgia cravings. As someone who has grown up as part of the streaming-first generation of music listeners, in the death throes of physical media, it would be disingenuous of me to wax too nostalgic about the good ol’ days of music consumption. But I do look back fondly even to those heady days of “320” kbps downloads from when I could really dig deep and fall in love with a particular artist. Say what you will about the simplicity of streaming, even the few extra steps it took to download the audio and transfer it to my iPod Touch offered so much more agency and a greater sense of exploration than algorithmic recommendations ever could. Spotify transformed my mode of music consumption from active music finder to passive music receiver in a matter of only a couple years. I no longer obsess over musicians in the same way. The algorithms and the playlists rush me through artists too quickly for me to get invested in their lyrics, their ideas, their journeys. For that kind of parasocial relationship I have turned instead to podcasts, where the slower pace and more active path to content discovery allows me to find those connections I’ve been sorely missing. Perhaps surprisingly though, this byproduct is actually advantageous to a company like Spotify. By keeping artists at arms length while keeping fees manageable and listening effortless, it helps listeners consume uncritically and turn a blind eye to the financial woes of the people soundtracking their day.

Not content to only pillage the wealth of artists and suppress musical innovation, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek recently announced his investment into AI defence company Helsing, allowing the misery to spread far and wide. The reveal finally answered the question of what Spotify is investing in if not their artists, but the answer of €100 million towards killer drones feels almost comically villainous. The European firm claims to have developed a software platform that “processes data from multiple sensors directly on vehicles and systems, to provide an integrated view of the operational environment with the aim of faster and more accurate decision-making.” Essentially, this amounts to streamlining the process of turning humans into a fine pink mist. But never fear, for this kind of treatment is reserved only for countries with non-democratic governments and will provide a much needed “information advantage” for democratic governments. But why does Danny Spotify, recent addition to the Helsing board, get to become the arbitrator of democracy? At what point will the Spotify listeners who help fund this organisation be involved in any decisions on whose village gets ground into paste? Spotify’s latest move to accelerate the shift of responsibility from humans to machines serves to remind us of a fact that is less apparent but no less true of its streaming service: while algorithms themselves are benign snippets of code, their commercial deployment have material consequences and thorny implications. The question seems to be how much profit does Spotify have to make before these pesky implications give them a reason to pause.

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So, after all of this I’m left here, dick in hand, with thousands of tracks lovingly organised into Spotify playlists that I now feel an immense amount of guilt over. The sunk cost of those countless hours of curation was a large part of what had led me in the past to plug my ears from any negative press. But if, like me, you’ve been feeling Spotify trapped and want to make a change then there are options. There has been pushback against this exploitative streaming model that has started to attract more eyes and ears in recent years. There is of course Bandcamp that does significantly more to respect and reimburse their artists. They drew attention to themselves during the early days of lockdown with Bandcamp Fridays, stepping in to clear up the mess made by Spotify’s lack of care. If that option lacks the level of recommendations you’re used to, then there are music aggregators like Buy Music Club which offer curated playlists (possibly made by artists you like) that allow you to support the creators involved. An alternative route that I’ve noticed growing in popularity among musicians is setting up a Patreon or similar membership sites where fans can contribute directly to artists they enjoy in return for exclusive content and contact from those artists. This has worked wonders for people like Jack Stauber and Every Time I Die’s Keith Buckley, who can now comfortably survive off of their art without having to hold their breath for Spotify to someday fulfil their initial promise of financial freedom. Best of all, however, all of these options can lead you to music you love without feeling the need to patronise you by telling you that your playlists were on fleek (no cap).