Spotify Out of Tune with Musicians

With the recent introduction of Swedish streaming site/nascent music monolith Spotify, as well as other streaming applications, Australians have seen a very sudden and rather bemusing shift in the musical landscape.Spotify allows the user to pay up to $10 a month to stream millions of songs to their smart phone or their desktop PC.

Having used Spotify as well as reading up about their subscription figures, I have no doubt that streaming and in particular Spotify, will be at the forefront of future music distribution.

Streaming music is not a new thing, it has been around for years and sites very similar to Spotify have existed before, such as Grooveshark. However the difference with this recent slue of stream providers is that they are entirely legitimate.

From each subscription Spotify receives, a percentage goes to the record companies. However, finding out how much of a percentage they receive has so far proved quite elusive, as has finding out how much of that percentage finds its way to the artists wallet.

As a musician I'm not comfortable with Spotify, but can endure some of my gripes about the service:

  • To use it you must have an uninterrupted internet connection and some sort of smart phone or computer to use.
  • The sound quality is shit.
  • It’s not tangible in a romantic sense, or even a physical sense at all which is unsettling and kind of sad, but not worth dwelling over.

The real problem that I have with Spotify is that if all does go to plan and they continue to grow their subscription numbers at the rate they currently are, Spotify will more or less have the monopoly on all music distribution.

If there is one truth about free market economies and capitalism it is that Monopolies are bad! If a streaming service like Spotify were to become the standard in music distribution, it will cause severe repercussions for independent labels and musicians themselves.

Last November it was reported that 200 record labels had dropped out of Spotify as they felt that they were getting slowly and tenderly violated by the royalty payment system.

To reiterate, Spotify have kept it a guarded secret how much of a percentage they give record companies, presumably because it is not the same across the board for major and independent labels, or even amongst the major labels, the four leading ones holding an 18% stake in the company.

Spotify will reach a critical mass, leaving little or no alternative for musicians and labels but to join. If Spotify does become the standard and a bands music isn’t on it, chances are people won’t hear it. This gives the musicians and record labels more or less no bargaining power and makes it extremely difficult for up and coming bands to create any sort of impression.

It may be a generalization to assume that users don’t tend to think much about the ethical or moral concerns around websites such as Spotify. People are paying money to listen to music, and that in itself is better than illegal downloading. However are people paying the money to alleviate their guilty conscience or is it for the functionality and convenience of having access to millions of songs in their pocket for just $10 a month?

The service is instant and so cheap that there is so little monetary value associated with the music. It doesn't honour the amount of work, love and commitment that has gone into producing the product. The streaming model is extremely cost effective and extremely convenient for the user, but from the artists’ perspective it is probably a little more akin to getting kicked in the face.

Musicians don’t tend to have the same status as they might have had in the past. Save for a select few bands, many have to tour constantly to make ends meet. Gone are the days when a band will have their own private jet with their name emblazoned down the side. Being a musician is a hard slog and Spotify doesn’t seem to be offering any real alternative for musicians or independent labels, rather, it is creating a way for the major labels to capitalize on the digital music revolution.

Over the ensuing few years we will find that streaming services will further change people's perceptions of what music is actually worth, and in turn how musicians approach making music in the first place. Hopefully vinyl will continue to rise and offer at least a niche alternative to listeners over the coming years, but it looks to me that if labels and musicians want to go against Spotify, they’ll be swimming up stream.

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