Robin Hood is considered a hero and a “prince of thieves” because he robs from the rich and elite and gives to the poor. But who is the poster-boy for someone who takes from the poor to give more to the rich? Maybe a dictator like Kim Jung Un, or a slumlord like Monty Burns, or an ungraciously shrewd businessman like Ebenezer Scrooge, or a ruthless slave owner like Edwin Epps in 12 Years A Slave.
Which category does Spotify belong in?
I’ll just come right out and say it. I don’t use Spotify. Intentionally. The decision is a personal one, not because of lack of technical capabilities or an apprehension toward new-school music delivery. No, this decision is based on ethics.
I believe in the arts. I believe that good art shapes culture and can change lives. So much so that I have built a non-profit organization around celebrating well-crafted art that turns lights on in our souls. However, I cannot be pro-art without being pro-artist. The value we give to artists will run directly parallel with the value we give to art in culture.
Spotify is great… if you are only streaming music signed to record labels. The record labels (for the most part) own the rights to the music on their label. All the major labels have negotiated special contracts, including up-front payments, for Spotify to have permission to feature those labels’ songs. The artists who are under contract on those labels are less dependent on album sales and streaming royalties for their well-being as compared with their non-contracted independent conterparts.
I have had conversations with over 25 independent artists about their thoughts on Spotify. A common phrase pops up: “it’s a necessary evil.” In fact, the vast majority of indie artists I have spoken to have an overall negative impression – to most, any increases in new listeners on Spotify has yielded little to no fruit when it comes to booking shows, concert attendance, or album sales.
“But I thought artists get paid through Spotify.” Yes, Spotify has been paying over 75% of its revenue in royalty fees. (FYI, Spotify’s 2015 annual earnings were $2.18 Billion!) However, the bulk of that money is going to the lucrative contracts set up with record labels. Indie artists get the short stick. How short? Some popular indie artists are paid a few thousand dollars (which cannot sustain a career) for over 1M streams. But the vast majority of artists I know are getting streams in the thousands or maybe tens of thousands, and are often paid in literal pocket change. The bigger impact is a drop in actual album sales. The more someone uses a streaming service, the less likely they are prone to be a paid customer for the music they love.
Here is the grand delusion we find ourselves as a culture. We are willing to overlook the treatment of the independent content providers for Spotify because – well – their service is just so darn convenient. We will even tell ourselves things like, “I’m just sampling the music on Spotify, and I’ll go pay money for the albums I really like.” That good intention might win out here and there, but most people will get used to on-demand instant access, with all that’s left being a good intention.
If anyone should use Spotify with the noble directive to discover new music, it should be me! It’s part of my job description. Yet I know the ethical slippery slope I’ll be on if I justify my use of a service that I believe is anti-artist. And if they are anti-artist, then ultimately they are anti-art. If you, like me, are someone who believes in both art and artist, then you should probably stop looking at Spotify as a neutral bystander, and consider that it is fostering a dangerous cultural shift.
A young man was deeply moved after seeing UTR artist Christopher Williams in concert. He visited the merch table, looked at the CDs, and in an upbeat way (like he was offering some kind of extra support), he said, “I’ll be sure to check you out on Spotify right when I get home.” Thankfully Christopher didn’t cower and accept that as a compliment (like I have seen other artists do first-hand). He replied, “You can do that, but just know that I don’t get paid for that. So if you want to support my music, buy a CD tonight.” The young man did. He was a pro-artist person who thought his use of Spotify was also pro-artist.
Closer to home, my oldest niece Hannah is a student at Westmont College. During her high school years, she was the highest spender on music in her family of six. She discovered and started using Spotify in 2015, and was blown away by the availability of any music she wanted on-demand. The next day she said – like as a badge of honor or some kind of personal challenge – “I will never spend another dollar on music the rest of my life!” She herself is a musician, and yet she cannot see how her attitude toward Spotify had any ethical implications for the artistic community.
To music consumers: No one is forcing you to use Spotify. If you love it and want to use it, go right ahead. But do so with the knowledge that you are supporting a platform that is not pro-artist. And that is a place I don’t want to be.
To indie artists: I understand you feel stuck, because Spotify is where the majority of music listeners congregate, and you want to be in front of people. If all you care about is exposure, then keep using and promoting your Spotify channel, but just know that you can’t put gas in the car with “exposure.” I would much rather see artists point consumers to point-of-purchase options like Amazon or iTunes. But if you do choose to use Spotify, please note that you do so willingly, and that you relinquish all rights to whine and complain the next time you get an insulting royalty check from them.
To the industry at large: We need another streaming leader to emerge (no, I am not anti-streaming). I am still in the early stages of learning about Apple Music and YouTube Music, but I’m not sure these are the answers. It doesn’t have to be the biggest or most robust channel on the market. I’m looking for a channel that caters to indie artists and pays fair royalties – always asking if their decisions help or hurt the artist community. I believe YouTube video streaming does a decent job of leveraging their ad revenue into paying their content providers a fair royalty. It can be done for music too.
Oppressing the poor to enrich oneself,
and giving to the rich—both lead only to poverty.
Don’t rob a poor man because he is poor,
and don’t crush the oppressed at the gate,
for the Lord will take up their case
and will plunder those who plunder them. (Prov. 22: 16, 22, 23)