I have written a lot about Spotify over the years, but I never feel like I’m communicating effectively. I’d like to thank Neil Young for having a little tantrum and putting the corporation back in the news cycle for the past few days — an especially impressive accomplishment, given the prevalence of other big news stories at the moment, such as all those Russian troops massing near Ukraine, and some of the highest numbers of people dying of Covid every day here in the US since the pandemic began.
I think part of the reason why I feel like I’m not communicating well when I write about Spotify is I focus so much on the negative aspects of the operation. Another reason is I tend to forget that just because it is by far the most popular music streaming platform on the planet, what this means in practice is that there are hundreds of millions of mostly young people around the world for whom listening to music means opening Spotify, but then there are billions of other people around the world, largely middle-aged or older folks, who have never used a music streaming app of any kind.
So I’d just like to put it out there now at the outset that I completely understand why Spotify is so popular, and I use the platform regularly, despite all my complaints about the way the company is run. I am also a regular user of so many other platforms that are run by other very large corporations with predatory corporate practices, including but not limited to Facebook, Google, Uber, and Airbnb.
The impact Uber has had on the taxi industry in the US and many other countries is well-known, as is the impact Airbnb is having on the rise in the cost of non-vacation housing for regular people looking for a place to live. But from an app consumer point of view, it would be hard to overemphasize how much the experience of traveling has been improved by having the use of Airbnb, or how much the rider’s taxi experience has been improved by Uber, or what an amazing volume of free music delivered through well-curated playlists and highly intelligent algorithms Spotify represents.
For the billions around the world who regularly use Facebook, I probably don’t need to explain how essential the platform has become, for us to communicate with our friends (of whichever variety), and for us to have a sort of presence in the world. To the extent that social media is media, where we are as individuals at the very least broadcasting information about our lives and whereabouts and goings-on, whether that’s just for our friends or for a wider section of the public, in reality what this means is Facebook. When we say “social media” mostly we mean Facebook — at least when it comes to the billions around the world who are daily users of the platform, most of whom do not have accounts with Twitter or Reddit.
A good part of the reason why Facebook, Google, Uber, Airbnb and Spotify became so popular is because they offer really useful services — mostly “free” services in the case of platforms like Spotify, Facebook, or Google, whereas in the case of Uber or Airbnb they offer services that are often much cheaper than the alternatives, as well as much more user-friendly, to such an extent that in the case of Uber they have driven much of the competition completely out of business, so if you didn’t use Uber before, you do now.
Just to make a personal note and emphasize this point again, I can see on my own Artist Profile on Spotify that of my 13,000 or so monthly listeners on the platform, 70% of them are between the ages of 18-34. This probably says more about who uses Spotify than it does about my general audience, but regardless, I think I can be reasonably sure that most of the people reading this right now are older than that age range, and most of you are not regular users of Spotify.
So for those who aren’t aware — and for those who are, but weren’t sure whether or not I get it — Spotify is for many millions of people what Facebook is for many millions of others, in the sense that it’s not just a music streaming platform, one of many platforms that hosts largely the same selection of tens of millions of songs on it that were all trawled by the same means as all the other music streaming platforms. It’s not just that Spotify is free, and was the first legal streaming platform to offer a free version of its service, though that played a massive role in Spotify’s rise to dominance. Spotify is also the place where you “live” when you’re listening to music or podcasts. You have your own playlists, you have the various other playlists you follow, you’re always adding new stuff to playlists, and with each passing month, Spotify basically becomes a second home. You can’t just switch from Spotify to Apple Music any more than you can just close your Facebook account, post only on Twitter and Reddit, and still feel like you exist in the (virtual) world. For so many people, if you’re off of Facebook, you’ve disappeared. Spotify is no different.
Spotify, like Facebook and Google, is not just a platform we use in order to accomplish certain tasks, like write a message to a friend or listen to a song. These platforms are like the infrastructure for our lives, and this becomes more the case every day with all three of them, largely for the same combination of reasons. Especially for someone who doesn’t use Spotify, it’s easy to tell folks to use a different music streaming platform, but it’s akin to telling Facebook users to switch to Twitter. Or for those of you who aren’t on the internet at all and have no idea what the heck I’m going on about, it’s kind of like telling someone to give away their comfortable couch and make do with a hardback wooden chair. They just needed a place to sit, right? What’s the difference?
As I’m reading lots of news stories and opinion pieces about Neil Young getting Warner Records to remove his entire catalog from Spotify (which they did), I get the impression for the first time that I am mostly reading the words of journalists who grew up streaming music online, and who see the music media landscape as it largely now is — a choice between different “free” corporate-owned streaming platforms, ever since Spotify started their “free” tier in 2013, and everyone else sooner or later followed suit, because they basically had no other viable options.
I only recently read Shoshana Zuboff’s excellent book from 2019, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. It’s largely about Facebook, Google, and Amazon, and the particular ways they became the world’s biggest corporations. One of the things that struck me was the author’s basic premise that things did not need to develop in this way. There were well-established ways corporations could be very profitable without a total invasion of your privacy, without selling all of your data, without following the model of operating at a loss for years in order to strangle all the competition and become what is effectively a monopoly.
Before Spotify started their “free” tier, throughout the music streaming industry there was a basic operating assumption that if you paid artists much less than one US cent per song streamed, you were risking your corporate reputation or a boycott. There was an awareness that the music industry had only recently collapsed, and that the internet had a lot to do with this, one way or another. If it wasn’t a music piracy site, the general idea seemed to be one cent per song streamed was a sort of baseline.
In most countries there were few if any laws dictating a minimum payout per song streamed on a music streaming platform, so when Spotify decided to break this tradition, stop charging their customers who didn’t mind listening to some ads, and bring the world’s music to the world for free, a big part of the way they were able to do this, and to expand so rapidly as a result, was by drastically lowering how much they were paying artists.
But that’s all in the past at this point. Now, almost all music is free, in high-quality streaming form, and it’s on Spotify, presented in many different attractive ways. Now, most people who consume new music do so on a streaming platform, and most people who stream music do so on Spotify. Now, the millions of musicians around the world who literally lost half of their income in 2013, such as me, have either found other jobs, retired, or adapted to the new Patreon reality.
As Neil Young beseeches other musicians to leave the platform if Spotify doesn’t get rid of their exclusively Spotify-hosted and extremely popular Joe Rogan podcast, I find myself both appreciating Neil’s tenacity while simultaneously wondering if he has ever used Spotify or listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast, and most of all I find myself wondering how it exactly was that we got to this point.
I love Neil Young. I appreciate all of his many efforts towards making the world a better place over the course of my entire lifetime, not to mention his often great songwriting and wonderfully irreverent, iconoclastic, but totally rocking electric guitar style. I have only listened to a little of Joe Rogan’s podcast. It’s basically a talk show, and not nearly as offensive a talk show as many that can be heard on radio stations that play Neil Young’s music all across the US, Canada, and elsewhere.
As much as I might like to see Neil Young at the helm of Spotify instead of billionaire businessman Daniel Ek, we can be fairly sure that all Neil will accomplish by removing his music from the platform is he’ll lose a significant amount of income, and among his less fanatical fans, his more casual listeners, for millions of daily Spotify users who have his music on a few playlists, he will basically disappear from the radar, and might not even be missed all that much.
What I find myself thinking about a lot since this latest effort to get Spotify to cancel their contract with Rogan, though, are the 20,000 podcast episodes that Spotify has just announced they deleted because they violated their standards on spreading disinformation. They don’t say what those standards are, but they have let us know that they exist, and that they have resulted in 20,000 podcast episode deletions.
I don’t personally have any contracts with Spotify to produce content for them, the way Rogan does. Nor do I have Neil Young’s 6 million monthly listeners on the platform, nor do I stand to lose probably tens of thousands of dollars a month in income from leaving the platform. Neil Young recently sold the rights to all his music for $150 million or something like that, so he’s not hurting for cash.
But for me, and for hundreds of thousands of other musicians in the world, leaving Spotify — whether voluntarily or because Spotify decided we were no longer desirable on the platform — would be an absolutely devastating, basically career-killing move, at least as significant as being kicked off of Facebook or having all your content erased from YouTube, or being kicked off of platforms that have become essential elements of making everything work these days for so many artists, including me, such as Paypal or Patreon.
The only historical equivalent I can think of that really captures the crucial nature of all of these platforms to the livelihood of so many artists today is when the federal government takes away someone’s passport, like when they wouldn’t let the famous Black communist baritone, Paul Robeson, leave the country for so many years. Or being put on a no-fly list would be another equivalent. But instead of a government — whether an accountable one or not — making these decisions about an artist’s ability to make a living, it is a handful of multinational corporations, who seem to be accountable to no one.
There are obviously loads of great reasons to criticize Spotify’s business model, how they treat artists, why they thought it was a good idea to spend $100 million on an exclusive contract with Joe Rogan, and so on. But as an artist for whom being in the good graces of entities such as Spotify, Patreon, Paypal, Google and Facebook is basically at this point essential to survival, such as it is in the era of streaming and crowdsourcing, it is those 20,000 podcast episodes Spotify deleted that concerns me the most, along with so many others whose accounts on other such platforms have been deleted by the platforms without explanation, with no clear way to seek redress.
With massive tech corporations making all the major decisions about what news, posts, music, etc., we are or aren’t exposed to, based on opaque algorithms or decisions made by bots or unaccountable humans somewhere along the chain of command, we have fully entered the dystopia in which huge corporations have almost complete control of our actual day-to-day communication, in reality. This is the reality that needs to change, somehow. If we are reduced to trying to get monopolies to regulate themselves, beseeching them to do a better job of running their own for-profit platform so it doesn’t spread disinformation as much, when they make more money from spreading disinformation, then we’re just like a dog chasing its tail.
These are monopolies, they are far beyond the possibility for any kind of boycott to be a realistic prospect, and they need to be regulated in order to serve the common good. Hoping they’ll regulate themselves because of popular pressure is just as unlikely as polluting industries going green without environmental laws being enforced by government agencies. The corporate PR departments will work overtime to try to make us believe they’re stewards of the Earth or supporters of free speech or that they love musicians or whatever other nonsense, but according to precedent, if it’s more profitable for them to dump oil in the ocean, spread lies, or pay musicians a tenth of a cent per stream, they’ll do it, and they’ll try to make themselves look good in the process.
What effective regulation might look like in terms of disinformation, algorithms, payout structures, etc., are fundamental questions for the future of our society’s social fabric, and for our economies. Figuring all of that out, if it were to ever happen, would surely be a fraught process, maybe in direct proportion to how corrupt the regulatory authorities might be. But without regulation, leaving it up to Spotify and the rest of the big tech companies to call the shots, it’s pretty clear that we can look forward to more disinformation, and more exploitation. And lots more good music, too, although most of us artists are forced to spend a lot less money on recording albums, given Spotify’s priorities, namely to spend $100 million on a contract with Joe Rogan, rather than paying us for the music on which their platform was built.