For the Record, Spotify isn’t so Groovy

When Taylor Swift—arguably the world’s biggest pop star—went on a personal crusade against Spotify recently, you could have been forgiven for sighing a little and wondering if she’s heard the latest on Syria’s refugee crisis. Complaints like “I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates writers, producers, artists and creators of this music,” can sound suspiciously like a rich person’s request for tax reductions. Still, it is her work, and it’s hard to argue with her point.

Spotify, of course, is the most cited example of music’s streaming trend, and with good reason. With 75 million active users, 20 million of whom are on paid subscriptions, it is vastly larger than its competitors. Apple Music has 6.5 million paying users, and 15 million in total. Deezer claims 3.8 million revenue-generating subscribers, while Tidal has approximately 580,000.

According to Spotify, their payments currently stand at between 0.6 and 0.84 cents per play. That’s fairly hard to relate to, so here’s some context. A man in the south of England recently “Rick rolled” himself for four days straight, for charity. In exchange for 96 consecutive hours of playback—assuming Never Gonna Give You Up was streamed via Spotify—Astley should receive $13.63. That’s at the generous end of the pay scale, and might just about grab you a new copy of the album that the track came from, assuming none of Astley’s (no doubt substantial) release costs.

Even as a serious music fan, I’d hazard a guess that the number of albums (let alone tracks) I’ve ever listened to cumulatively for more than 96 hours can probably be counted on one hand. That means in real terms, Spotify clearly underpays relative to CDs.

Another way to put this is that if there are four people in your band, and you put a 12-track album on Spotify, it would need to be played in full 600,000 times before each member would earn $15,000—approximately the US minimum wage for one year.

Indie band Delorentos, who won the Meteor Choice album of the year for Little Sparks in my home country of Ireland back in 2012 doesn’t have single track that’s reached the 600,000 mark on the service, let alone an album. 2014’s winning band The Gloaming (who beat U2, Damien Rice, Sinead O’Connor and Hozier to the title) has one. 2011 winner Jape has no tracks over 300,000.

In other words, those who make enough money from Spotify for it to be worth serious consideration are already such big artists that it probably doesn’t matter that much to them.

Having examined their payments, then, it’s easy to see why the music industry is struggling. It’s equally easy to see why the New York Post reports an 8% increase in ticket prices over the first half of 2015, and an average price of a chunky $76.20: artists need to make their money somewhere.

It’s all very well saying—as many do—that there will always be music. There will. But when it’s not a sustainable career for any but an elite few, there won’t be anything like as much of it, and it won’t be of such good quality.

Stats suggest that the dawn of MP3s marked the start of music’s devaluation, as well as the death of the true “mega album.” Adele’s 21 turns out to be the only new music released since the year 2000 to bother the top 37 albums of all time. With sales of 31 million copies, it’s the exception that proves the rule (Adele’s recently-released 25 is also set to be a record-breaker, so this may be a phenomenon unique to her).

KISS bassist Gene Simmons recently talked about why he believes there won’t be another Beatles, Stones, Michael Jackson, or NWA. He talks about the time those artists were given to develop, the “ten thousand hours to expertise” theory, and the lack of money to invest in artists’ development now.

Working within the industry, there’s a collective view that streaming services are at best an intermediary, and a growing concern about music’s ability to move forward.

There have also been several attempts at gaming the system that could prove problematic for streaming’s business model. Services like Spotify rely on convincing advertisers that listeners are actually, genuinely, listening. But what if they’re not? In 2014, German-American band Vulfpeck rather brilliantly “recorded” a totally silent album called Sleepify, promising fans that if they left the album on rotation, the band could fund a free tour (they earned $20,000 from the gambit, and did indeed tour off the back of it). Fans of John Cage’s notorious (totally silent) 4’33” might see something wonderful in this, but the band’s joking tweets sound like the first gentle jabs at Spotify’s business model: “Please don’t ‘shuffle’ Sleepify,” they said. “I know this might come off snobbish, but we spent a lot of time on track order.”


That particular little game might not be hard to shut down, but there are more serious threats on the horizon, too. In 2013, Peter Fillmore built a botnet—essentially a self-operating computer system—to listen to his (possibly deliberately) horrible music on repeat, netting himself more than $1,000 in the process. He even scored a place on the Australian streaming charts.

More recently, a tech writer named William Bedell programmed a system that generated numerous Spotify accounts, and then used them to rack up $30 in plays every day as proof of concept.

Clearly, the benefit to advertisers doesn’t exist unless people are listening. If antics like this become mainstream, Spotify will either have to reduce already unpopular payments or take on the complex technical challenge of blocking the numerous routes to false listening.

So is avoiding Spotify for other services the best way to honor artists? Apple Music made a lot of noise when comparing their value for artists to services like Spotify, but the numbers aren’t that impressive. Apple has promised to pay out 75% of all revenues to artists, but Spotify already pays out 70%, which only seems to clarify that the revenue model itself, rather than the company dealing with it, is the core problem. And it took pressure—once again from Taylor Swift—to push Apple to pay artists at all during the new service’s trial period, which is free to users.

This is where Tidal comes in. The service, launched by Jay-Z, is certainly the lesser of the streaming industry’s evils, paying out approximately 1.2 cents per stream. That does make them markedly better than their rivals—about 60% better—even if the difference is minute when applied to a single track. An album would have to be played through around 100 times on Tidal to generate the same revenue as a CD, as opposed to close to 160 times on Spotify. Given that a CD comes at an additional cost to the artist in production and distribution, the comparison is not perfect, but Tidal does have a certain amount of appeal versus other services. Still, it’s a minority service with a modest user base. At best, it is a stepping stone to fairness in artist compensation, rather than a revolution.

Whether or not you like Swift, it’s hard not to like what she said, at least if you’ve any connection to the industry. We, too, “don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.” For those of us who recognize this, streaming services (with a small nod to Tidal for their over-market-rate payments) are just not an option.

In a world where CDs are dying, downloads seem bordering on obsolete next to streaming, and streaming doesn’t pay, some who care have started seeking out the last bastion of fair pricing and artistry: vinyl. Perhaps for lack of an alternative, vinyl has had a surprising revival, with sales up 53% in the US in the first quarter of 2015, compared to the prior year.

Buying vinyl is sometimes seen as a hipster act, but I have another theory: it might be the only product that offers something substantial, has value, and provides notable support to artists, especially the small artists that truly need it.

It doesn’t have to be vinyl, of course. What’s important is that people think about supporting the artists they love, and understand that playing their songs through streaming services or YouTube (worst of all, at around 0.18 cents per listen) isn’t any kind of support worth mentioning.

Be it vinyl, CD, or paid downloads, virtually every non-streaming service bar illegal downloading is a huge, huge step up in rewards for the artist. If you truly love a musician—especially an up-and-coming one whose music might not be bringing in enough to support them—fandom has to be about more than hype and listens, and we have to put our money where it matters.

Deep down, while the changes she’s pushed for—and accepted—are a step in the right direction, even Taylor Swift knows the necessary balance of offerings to payments in online music distribution is still a long, long way off.