Should My Band Be On Spotify? (Part 2)

AKA Good Question

Photo: LeWeb (Flickr)

(Part 2 of 2)

In Part 1, I was pretty onboard wasn’t I? ‘Hell yeah,’ I said, ‘Let’s get our work out to the people so I can feel like I don’t just make this stuff for dilettantes and record collectors!’

And that’s me wearing two hats (not recommended).

I’m wearing my listener hat. That’s the hat that smells of suburban alt-metal banger who started an MP3 collection in 1998 and had dubbed cassettes and burned CDs before that. When I’m wearing that hat, I don’t want music to be free (music isn’t free) but I do want people to be able to get it, no matter how shit I think my own stuff is on my worst days.

I’m also wearing another hat with a slogan that reads, ‘This Is The Way Of The World People!’. Pretty sure my Dad gave me this hat at a young age. It’s all the things my scholarly training bristles against: it’s economically rational, calculating, savvy, common-sensical. But no one has changed the state of the world wearing this hat, fewer still have made truly great music with it on. It’s also not a very communal hat. Or a very nice looking one.

I’m going to put on a different hat now.

Here is my seldom seen (here) cultural studies bonnet.

(That’s what they call it when you graduate, a bonnet. After 7 years.)

Look out everyone. Egg-head coming through.

#2 Should we embrace Spotify and ignore the fact that it might be the single biggest fraud ever perpetrated upon our working brother and sister musicians? 

I read an interview recently with one of my favourite musicians, Dave Bazan (formerly of Pedro The Lion). In the interview he was asked about Spotify:

“Spotify, in particular, is just straight-up class warfare…People are getting paid from Spotify, but it’s not artists. The amount of money that artists are making on Spotify is ridiculous. The amount of money that Sean Parker and EMI and those types of interests are making of off Spotify is where the real crime is. The question when it happened was, “Who okayed this major transfer of these commodities—hundreds of thousands of songs and records?” No one I knew had anything to do with it—it was all these labels. They got big cash bonuses that are not part of the royalty stream and won’t trickle down to artists.

They’re all shareholders as well so when it IPOs, they’ll make another billion dollars each and the artists will make exactly zero. Spotify, in particular, is very much the story of the 1% and the 99% all over again.

…I think those subscription-based things are just one less commitment that consumers have to make. It’s that much more…removed from committing to a purchase and a decision. In general, I think that that’s an unhealthy way to live—period.”

That’s as good a summary of the against case as you’ll read anywhere.

In short, Spotify sucks because it’s the same old problem: rich business elites gouging away at the labour of musicians. Someone like Bazan – who plays music for a living in the most traditional sense – is the exact sort of person most hurt by all this. There really is no splitting hairs with it. He’s not an old-industry established artist who can’t see the harm. During the course of Bazan’s career, people like Sean Parker have profited repeatedly from technologies that have greatly diminished recording income for artists like him. And as such, people like Bazan are rightly angry and rightly dubious that people like Sean Parker now have the artist-friendly ‘answer’ to the problems they themselves spread.

There is no way to properly explain what has happened to people like Bazan without recourse to class, as he points out. In Spotify, we have powerful venture capitalists, tech entrepreneurs, affluent middle-class consumers and the telecommunications industry all coming together to screw the living bejesus out of the working musician.

This is the raw, unavoidable face of recent music history. People who have few other options but to try and make a full-time living out of music are often kept at low income levels by a range of societal processes that go way, way beyond, ‘They’re just unsuccessful musicians who won’t give up.’ For some, it is literally the only skill-set they have developed. And often times, we as listeners, want them to continue working in music.

But music is – as the Australia Council for the Arts succinctly pointed out the other week – an exploitative industry in the most basic terms:

“Less than 200 musicians and composers earned over $100,000 from their creative practice in 2007/08 – and the median creative income for performing musicians was $7,200.”

Unfortunately these issues have been with us a long, long time. History tells us that while the means change, the musician usually gets screwed, again and again and again and again.

Which in a roundabout way brings me to the crux of the problem articulated by Spotify.

This is why everyone is talking about it and why it’s such a lightning rod for pundits and angry bloggers and spooked musicians.

This was NOT supposed to be happening again!

Web 2.0 promised musicians change, a utopia. A meritocracy, an even playing field, fast distribution, cheap production and DIY, organic celebrity. We got some of these things (and they’re great) but these promises weren’t all they appeared to be. The gains we did get came at a cost.

In the other post, I talked about how the operating market value of streaming audio data probably was as low as $0.005 US per stream. That’s one of the costs. We can all see the figure now. It’s clear.

And some people are angry about this because this is the first time we’re able to see the true market value of recorded music in the modern age.

As the sole means to earn an income, recorded music has been rendered virtually worthless.

But when has good recorded music ever solely been about it’s market value?

A: Never.

Music isn’t gold. We don’t like it because of its market value.

Instead, music taps into the parts of us that desperately need to escape things like the world of economics and captial and work. It is extremely communal. It demands a community. Greil Marcus even thinks that contemporary music functions almost entirely as a balm for capitalism by way of it’s communal power. He writes of how we live within a societal system that tries – against our nature – to make all of us competitive. Some of us just aren’t and we need music to lead us back to each other.

Music works because of it’s ability to momentarily escape captialism’s value system. Through music we have a means to articulate the value of other things.

These issues collide in Spotify because a few elite business people have found a way to route their capital and their technological expertise around this thing we love (music) in such a way as to make a lot of money out of it. That’s all it is. It doesn’t threaten music. Music will keep happening. It will keep being recorded.

So I’m still putting my stuff on Spotify because it seems more symptom than cause to me.

I can deal with the symptoms.

I have to.

Being a musician is about how I navigate this shaky ground, not how I ignore it completely.

Dave Bazan is doing that too, mind you. He putting his foot down in one place and I’m not. That’s all.

Whatever way people go, I think we need to vigilantly watch and document Spotify and services like it.

We need better data too, more relevant and concrete figures.

I’m about to get those figures. Soon you’ll be able to see just what a tiny noise-sludge band from Brisbane, Australia makes from Spotify and how it compares to things like cost of distribution, average show income and profits from sale of small-run vinyl albums. Sounds like fun doesn’t it? No. Doing it anyway. #Nerd

And this is not the end. I’m going to keep thinking on it. I welcome whatever comments you may have.

As for what YOU should do about Spotify?

I’m honest enough – and sure enough, in this once instance – to tell you that I have no fucking idea.

What I do know is this: It’s not too late to chose model trains or indoor cricket or kite-making instead of music.


10 thoughts on “Should My Band Be On Spotify? (Part 2)

  1. Very interesting pair of articles, Ian, thank you! I tend to come down around the same position as you in your way of the world” hat, but the class issues surrounding Spotify (and its ilk) are something I haven’t really considered before…

  2. Interesting posts. Permit me to ask a stupid question? Are you talking specifically about Spotify (as opposed to other popular streaming music services like Rdio or Pandora and so forth) or referring to streaming music services in general. I suspect the latter, but my curiosity is burning. 😀

    • I am talking about Spotify but only because it seems like such a lightning rod for the whole issue. I’m not across Rdio and Pandora as a user but I’m sure their returns to artists are similarly terrible. And to be 100% honest, No Anchor might already be on those services too (or is about to be) – as part of our agreement with CDBaby. I probably should check that. Dzz do you use these other streaming apps?

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