Many of us who enjoy music rely on Spotify. It’s easy, convenient, low-cost and legal. Since hitching its login wagon to Facebook in 2011, the online song-streaming service has transformed the way we consume our aural pleasures. But is Spotify good or bad for users and the artists whose music it offers?
Spotify works like this: Choose a subscription level, from free to $10 a month (for ad-free service and multiple-device usage) and get access to a treasure trove of licensed music—more than 20 million songs right now—from labels big (Sony, EMI) and small (Matador, Merge). Simply search for a track or album or artist, and from there you can construct shareable playlists and even sift through a pal’s music library. As far as luring people away from piracy is concerned, there isn’t a better option out there right now.
But many are criticizing Spotify’s revenue model, including the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, who called Spotify investor (and Napster file-sharing originator) Sean Parker an “asshole.” Some say that the company arranges better deals with labels than with artists, meaning the people making music get the short end of the financial stick. Fact is, streaming royalties don’t measure up, or even come close, to CD-sale royalties. Yet.
In light of the Hurricane Sandy benefit album (featuring songs by Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, Alicia Keys) not being made available on Spotify—because streaming, arguably, doesn’t benefit anyone as much as iTunes and album sales—we decided to debate a serious issue: Support Spotify or pull its plug?
You decide, dear reader.
Let’s Scrap Spotify
Think you’re cool and musically informed thanks to Spotify? You’re not. Here are three reasons you should dump Big Brother’s online-streaming service, and some alternative ways of supporting people who rock for a living:
Spotify exploits musicians. Spotify is unethical because it pays the musical equivalent of slave wages. Artists earn a fraction of a cent for each spin. More and more artists—go read Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500) and Zoë Keating’s online insights—are revealing microscopic earnings from streaming, and a debate is raging. The reason Spotify gets away with unfairly compensating artists is because a tipping point hasn’t been reached. If you know a product exploits, you boycott and tell the manufacturer why.
Spotify makes you a zombie. Curl up by the fire, young’un, so grumpy Gramps can tell you a story. Before Spotify, before the Internet, musical taste was something you personally cultivated and deeply felt. Today when we learn about a cool band, the online realm demands us to share it with everyone. Worse, streaming companies’ algorithms nudge us to accept their if-you-liked-that-you’ll-love-this suggestions. Gone are the days of risking 10 bucks on an unknown album. (Conversely, keeping a cool band to yourself is passé.) Well, a life without peril isn’t worth living. The world’s first rock star, Socrates, said, “Know yourself.” He meant develop your music library, not a Bon Iver-laden playlist to share with your mom. Also, why let a third party know everything about your tastes?
Spotify is killing the few remaining brick-and-mortar shops. Say what you will about skinny, unfriendly hipsters working in the last music shops. At least they grasp (or used to) how NIN’s The Downward Spiral can be traced to Throbbing Gristle’s “United/Zyklon B Zombie.” In other words, store clerks possess historical context and an archival impulse. Listen to someone defend Spotify: They always invokes a desire to discover new music—brand-new. In a record shop, music is a continuum, from Robert Johnson to Little Richard to Rihanna. Spotify instead presents you with 100 other artists aping Rihanna. When we lose a collector’s urge, the final tether to stores is cut. So much for the argument that Spotify encourages people to buy music. Fact: Artists today are worse off in a digital realm than they were in the physical era. Kickstarter, where artists beg for cash, will make out like a bandit.
Alternatives? First, buy music. Directly from a band’s site or at a show is best. If you’re stuck on streaming, try iTunes Match, which streams your music to devices—and which pays artists better. Second, stream from a band’s site, Bandcamp or ReverbNation pages, where artists control what’s posted. Remember: Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean bands benefit. Third, if you kids are so tech-centered, launch a new, fairer service. Go! – J.K.
Long Live Spotify!
The burden of proof falls on my opponent’s side. Spotify exists. It’s legal. About 20 million global users and countless musicians have all given the Swedish streaming service a vote of confidence. Bands aren’t forced to participate, and even the famously anti-Internet Metallica now has its catalog on the service. I use Spotify, and it has nothing short of transformed my music-listening experience … for the better, in case there was ever any doubt. Here’s why I think Spotify is worth a try—at least until the next best technology comes along.
It helps you discover music. I admit it, I’m cheap. It dates back to junior high when I bought a Selena album, and my dad kept asking me if that was how I really wanted to spend my money. Perhaps he was just commenting on my taste, but I still hear the echo of his warning when I consider trading cash for music. (Oddly enough, I don’t have the same response when buying concert tickets or band T-shirts.)
With Spotify, I can go on a musical odyssey of discovery for free. Without the stress of paying for music (or breaking the law), I try bands that I wouldn’t pay to sample. At this audio buffet, I unearth a trove of gems that would have remained buried.
Musicians may earn more. Note that artists are getting paid for Spotify, and their pay will increase the more people listen. As for how much is enough, shouldn’t the free market answer that? Because of Spotify, I actually spend more money on music than I would without it—just not on musical recordings. Here’s how it happens: I discover a band on Spotify. When they come to town, I pay to see their show. Then I buy a T-shirt, and maybe even a poster and an album because there’s a chance to get it autographed (an added value of the offline world). Perhaps recordings have evolved from being the product to being the marketing tool. Either way, music is still being made and the listener benefits.
New technology for a new world. Even if we wanted to return to a pre-streaming world, we’d find a diminished experience because music’s old tastemakers have disbanded. High Fidelity-style record stores are anemic to nonexistent (Zia Records is one of the few exceptions). The snobby clerk who will berate you for buying Stevie Wonder has gone the way of the eight-track. The days of radio DJs acting as introducers of new music were long ago traded for corporate radio behemoths, such as Clear Channel. In this brave new world, Spotify offers a way of listening to music without even owning it or storing it. It saves money on tacky CD shelves, and you can devote all of those saved resources to starting a decorative vinyl-record collection.
The apps fill the gaps. Some people complain that Spotify offers a lifetime of music, but no way to find it. That’s where Spotify’s App Finder comes in, helping you to discover music in an organized fashion. Publications, including Rolling Stone, NME and The Guardian, offer apps that connect listeners to album reviews and playlists. At last, you can read an album review while listening to the music being reviewed instead of in a cloud of silence. Billboard has an app that allows you to cruise its charts as playlists. Record labels such as Matador, Def Jam, Blue Note and Warner have apps that often include tour dates and artist information in addition to music. Then there are some fun and playful apps. For example, there’s the Riddarna Translator app, which helps you “learn Swedish the stressful and confusing way through the music of Riddarna.” They’re a melodic hard-rock band that I absolutely love and never would have otherwise discovered. And there’s Tastebuds, which helps you “meet people near you who share your taste in music.”
Is Spotify the best and most ethical way to listen to music? I don’t know. But unlike a physical building or recordings moribund in plastic, Spotify (or its replacement) is a living, breathing musical monster. As such, it will evolve and eventually become the very thing that everybody wants. In the meantime, I will keep listening and buying band T-shirts to assuage whatever guilt is associated with such a fantastic freebie. – C.M.R.
The road from illegal file-sharing to legal streaming took little more than a decade. Here’s how tech companies rose to legitimacy:
June 1999. Peer-to-peer file-sharing service Napster launches, igniting a legally suspect free-music free-for-all.
April 2003. Apple opens the iTunes Store, offering a legal way to buy digital media.
September 2003. The Recording Industry Association sues 261 American music fans for sharing songs.
May 2006. Swedish police shut down The Pirate Bay, a popular file-sharing website.
October 2008. Swedish music-streaming service Spotify debuts.
March 2011. Amazon unveils Cloud Drive, a web-storage app for its MP3 store, giving users five gigs of space that can be accessed from up to eight devices.
June 2011. Pandora Internet Radio becomes a publicly traded company. Although Pandora’s revenue surpassed $100 million, the company has yet to break even.
January 2012. Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom is arrested. He’s accused of costing the entertainment industry $500 million in losses through pirated content uploaded to his file-sharing sites. – J.K.