12 Feb 2022

Alex Ross: ‘It’s nice to see Spotify suffering a bit’

From Saturday Morning, 8:35 am on 12 February 2022

There’s been unprecedented fallout for Spotify since musician Neil Young withdrew from the music streaming service in late January.

Young’s move was in protest over the site’s publishing of Joe Rogan’s podcast, which is widely accused of spreading Covid-19 misinformation.

This week CNN reported that traffic to Spotify's Premium cancellation page tripled in a week.

Daniel Ek, co-founder of Spotify.

Daniel Ek, co-founder of Spotify. Photo: AFP / FILE

Yet Spotify’s business model has long been of concern in the music industry in relation to its meagre payments for musicians. 

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has written on the injustice of the streaming economy in response to the Neil Young saga.

Exact figures on what Spotify pays artists are hard to come by, he told Kim Hill.

“Spotify, which is of course the dominant streaming service, seems to pay, on average, four tenths of a cent per stream.

“Which means that if you have 1000 streams of your song that you put out there, you'll get a few dollars. And obviously, you need to rack up a huge number of streams in order to start to get real income or anything resembling the kind of income that artists once got from selling albums, CDs, downloads.”

Unless you’re a superstar you can’t earn a living on Spotify, he says, other platforms are available but still pay a fraction of what artists would once have earned.

“The traditional album system, which was, it has to be said, often extremely unfair, it was a very exploitative business, the old record business, but the artists did get something from recordings and also they also got advances, a band would be given an amount of money to make an album.

“This is not what Spotify is interested in, the whole system seems to be built for big record labels to can dump their entire catalogues out there and have this continuous stream of income from all these different sources.”

It’s a microcosm of the winner takes all model in wider society, Ross says.

“It is rigged to make the wealthy and established even more wealthy, even more established and leaves the working musician, the person who's touring, putting out albums, eking out an income in a very difficult position.”

Having access to most recorded music for a few dollars is understandably seductive, he says.

“It is the seduction of convenience, of instant gratification, which is also what Amazon gives us, what Facebook gives us, what Netflix gives us. This extreme ease of getting anything you want right away.

“But the question is, what's the price tag? And in so many cases we're facing up to the fact that there is a heavy price tag. And there are people who are suffering under poor working conditions because of this gleaming, glittering system that is so friendly to the average consumer.”

The power of these tech behemoths is a testament to the failure of regulation, according to Ross.

“The answer is not the individual; the burden shouldn't be on the individual consumer. It is about regulation. It is about oversight, it is about establishing bedrock rules, there should be a minimum streaming rate, there should be a separate, distinct streaming rate aside from royalties for publishing and recordings, just a fairer system.”

The CEO of Spotify Daniel Ek purports to run a platform not a record or publishing company, which doesn’t wash Ross says.

“That excuse becomes thin when you see how much money these so-called platforms are investing in creating their own content, supposedly $100 million or more is the tune of the contract between Joe Rogan and Spotify.

“So, they are investing, they are developing content, and they do bear responsibility. And the other issue is one of monopoly - the same company that's distributing all the content should not also be creating it, that's just a basic antitrust issue.”

Ek has also said musicians shouldn’t expect to earn a living from recording in this day and age, he says.

“Just as the pandemic was setting in, he gave this interview where he said, come on people don't be lazy, you can't expect to make a living in music just by recording an album, every three or four years.

“He said the artists today that are making it realise that it's about creating a continuous engagement with their fans, it is about putting the work in … the storytelling around the album, he said Taylor Swift is a great example of this.”

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Photo: Josh Goldstine

This amounts to a form of slavery, he says.

“What Eck saying is, you have to be doing this all the time, every day of the week, you have to be constantly prostituting yourself, day and night, you can never stop and just focus on the music itself.

“And so, it's basically a demand that artists just enslave themselves to the sort of their continuous exposure on every front.”

Despite its dominance, Spotify has yet to turn a profit, Ross says.

“After all these years of milking working musicians, they're still not turning a profit. I think they're, they're projected to turn a profit this year.

“That's kind of amazing with a company that has that big a share of the market. Their argument will be, well if streaming rates are raised, we're never going make a profit.

“Frankly, maybe that's just the way it has to be. I mean, maybe this company has to collapse at some point for a really new model to emerge.

“I do sometimes think that there's an endpoint to all this where, eventually the idea of all this music being out there, so easily accessible, I'm just not sure how sustainable it is.”

Meanwhile Ross is keeping hold of his physical music collection.

“I'm holding on to my CDs, I have vinyl albums that are 70 or 80 years old now and they're still working fine.

“These are very durable systems of preserving music, the digital form of preserving music, how long it will last? Even an mp3 with changes of technology is the mp3 eventually going to be unplayable on our devices?”

Alex Ross’ books include 2009’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century and his latest, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music.