How Can We Get Upstream of of Spotify’s Shit?

There’s real conundrum for the music person in these times of the microprocessor. Right now is that it’s easier than ever for musicians and labels to do things that once required heavy music industry machinery or lots of money — e.g. use synthesizers, master an album, distribute a record to thousands — but they increasingly find themselves at the mercy of corporations. Being independent in the music industry often means depending on a product offered by a massive, capital-turgid corporation all by yourself.

Spotify is a prime example. This will be an essay asking why we so reflexively use Spotify as listeners and distributors, and advocating for an alternative to a cooperatively owned and operated alternative Spotify, where the people making the music have control over servers and revenues. At the heart of this all is a challenge to the assumption that we need start–ups flush with capital to build beneficial technologies since, more and more, it seems like they don’t.

By sheer convenience, lots of people use Spotify to listen to music. Musicians and labels put their music on the platform so that those people using it out of sheer convenience will listen. Kind of like with Facebook, it’s just one of those technologies that lots of people use because lots of other people use it, even though it has a godawful interface, is impossible to navigate outside of algorithmically generated suggestions, and is a notoriously raw deal for creators. Much like with Amazon, it’s one of those sinful conveniences that we’ll get around to cancelling tomorrow.

In turn, smaller operators in the music industry — say, the creative class equivalent of the 99% — tend to feel like they have to forsake rightful access to compensation in return for exposure. We often see tweets by audio engineers or graphic designers razzing prospective clients for wanting to “pay” them in exposure, but it’s rare to hear the same complaints from people making music and forking it over to the algorithm.

Why Do We Put Up with Spotify?

There are three explanations here, as far as I can tell. The first is the most cynical, some form of platform realism.

1. Well, it’s there.

The first explanation is the one people seem to cite the most, often punctuated with a sigh. People listen to music on Spotify, and it’s better that they’re listening to it than not. Hopefully, those listeners are aware that Spotify is a raw deal, and will go on to buy the albums they like. This is a fair take, and I think, much like with the try-before-you-buy justifications of music pirating, it’s valid and does indeed lead to people buying the actual albums. In a way, this model is even a bit fairer to the consumer who, 20 years ago, would have had to buy a CD blind and maybe never listen to it again.

But this is an argument for streaming, not for Spotify. The justification for distributing on Spotify specifically often boils down to an admission that the thousandths of a penny per stream is better than earning nothing — better than the $0 royalty an artist or label gets when someone pirates the album.

For two decades, the majors have been wailing that there’s no way to make money off of recorded music because the market has collapsed. It’s something independents have internalized because, indeed, we’re not making much money off this stuff. Ultimately, many people play ball with Spotify in the off chance it will lead to lucrative opportunity, like a plum tour or someone licensing their music. In other words, music people have swallowed “for exposure” bit hook, line, and sinker, and are just hoping for the best. Again, it’s cynical, and not even half the story.

2. Misunderstood music economies

The second explanation is about the nature of music industry. The above logic — that there’s not really money to be made from recorded music, so might as well fork the music over to the terrible platform that doesn’t even let listeners browse a label’s catalog — is basically the sole reason Spotify has an inventory. There is money to be made in music, and in a lot of different ways. The Spotify model makes money off of music as an aggregate, much in the way that Facebook makes money by de-identifying users and selling their data in the aggregate.

As Lindsay Weinberg notes in her paper “Rethinking Privacy: A Feminist Approach to Privacy Rights After Snowden,” tech companies do frightening things with our information in aggregate and we need to start thinking about a digital rights not in the individual sense but in the collective. Yes, the albums I have uploaded to Spotify draw fractions of a penny, but so do the thousands of other albums uploaded, and that all starts to add up. But this is not the only way that money moves in the music world.

Consider the wildly contrasting cases of the cassette scene and modern-day hip hop. At one pole, you have a thriving cassette label scene that no one is getting rich off of, but is generally a self–sustaining cottage industry that is responsible for a lively, healthy, and diverse underground music scene. At the other, you have rap, which has been a money-making proposition since the ’90s via an entirely different sort of grassroots industry apparatus. In both cases, you have artists and their champions benefitting from direct control over the distribution of their output or images. There’s money flowing in both, be it a little or a lot. No one can really quit their day job to run a cassette label, where as stars from Project Pat to Lil Baby started rapping purely because of the money they thought they could make.

Ok, so why do both cassette labels and mainstream rappers put their music on Spotify? Well, Spotify effectively exists as the solution for Napster long in the making. It’s a place where listeners can access millions of songs, but instead of downloading them for free, they pay a nominal fee.

What I’m proposing here is that one explanation for why we use Spotify is because we bought into the RIAA’s message that piracy is bad and paying for music is good. The distortion, though, is that the only people who make any money off Spotify are the entities that hold a massive quantity of publishing rights — namely the types of corporations who have secured concentrated power on the music industry for much of recorded music’s history.

Then why on Earth do independents in this game (read: the rest of us), feel like it’s important that people pay something for music, when that something is such a pathetic amount and really only serves to prop up the insolvent tech company that is Spotify? Buying into the idea that paying for music in any way is better than pirating at music is basically tantamount to throwing up our hands and going, “Well it’s ok that I don’t get paid for my music as long as someone is paying for it.”

I personally don’t think it’s a great idea to conflate monetary value with the value that something may have for people or society. That conflation has lead us down some pretty bad roads, like the creation of bloated aftermarkets in the art world where the rich plunge their millions into these art objects as a means of money laundering or the idea that people should only be willing to access education and healthcare if they can afford it.

Now I’m all for the monetary value of music being unlocked and spread around. But if we uncritically and mindlessly conflate social/culture value with monetary value, we end up in a situation where we’re not supporting each other, but propping up an insolvent tech company. Reminder that Spotify is, after all, another one of those VC–bloated tech behemoths that has never turned a profit and likely never will. The only time it almost turned a profit was in in the 3rd quarter of 2018 when the company swapped investments with the Chinese streaming platform Tencent Music, creating an advantageous tax benefit. In other words, Spotify briefly turned a profit from a financial abstraction, but not its actual streaming product.

And if it does turn a profit, it won’t rewrite its rules and start paying more money to the people who stock its platform with the wares that actually facilitate its existence. We should probably start coming around to the fact now that if Spotify is anything like the other tech companies that eventually become profitable, it’s going to be because Spotify will be selling our data for what just about always proves to be a nefarious purpose.

Or, at least, if Spotify does become profitable, it will be at the expense of the potential for musicians to benefit economically from their recorded music. As Liz Pelly discusses in a wonderful article in The Baffler, Spotify very much so imagines itself as a kind of Uber for musicians. Pelly imagines, “an industry filled with ‘independent contractors’ who make music alone at home, service it to Spotify—after which they will dutifully refresh their ‘Spotify for Artists’ dashboards, check the ‘Stats’ tab, and hope for playlist placements.”

Pelly has identified ways that Spotify has already steeped into music production, by way of the icky chill aesthetic it encourages, and we should really consider its M.O. and aims as unpalatable as the music it positions to snag the post streams.

Which brings us to how Spotify makes musicians work.

3. We’re addicted to unpaid labor.

The third, and the explanation I find most compelling, is more sociological and perhaps even subliminal in nature. To quote a blog post written by a quiz writer who was recently laid off from Buzzfeed:

But another thing that is true is that a LOT of the site’s overall traffic comes from quizzes and a VERY large portion of that traffic comes from a constant flow of amateur quizzes made by community users. In the recent past, the second highest traffic driver worldwide has been a community user in Michigan who is a teenager in college who, for some reason, makes dozens of quizzes every week. It’s kinda amazing how much revenue-generating traffic the site gets from unpaid community volunteers. So, in a ruthless capitalist way, it makes sense for the company to pivot to having community users create almost all of the quizzes going forward. 

We’re doing unpaid work for these big media platforms all the time. A college kid in Michigan doing someone else’s job for free is an especially dramatic example, a more extreme case of a quotidien behavior. Every single day, we’re generating marketable data and metrics that make up Facebook’s, Google’s, and a variety of shady 3rd-party data brokers’ bottom lines.

We live in this bizarre moment when we are constantly producing value for some corporation, whether that’s at work, on the bus, or laying on the couch. Think about all of the times you’ve smashed that like on a post while naked. We are performing labor that helps these entities net millions and billions of dollars and don’t get compensated one red cent. We’re offered free email and GPS services, or the ability to keep with with people we weren’t really friends with in high school, or a potential audience of 83 millions people who may listen to our music.

The process of getting music posted to Spotify is a little more labor-intensive than logging location data with Google Maps or getting followed by Facebook around the Internet or constantly refining your advertising identity for Instagram. But the class of work it falls under — just putting yourself out there online in a way that contributes to a corporation’s bottom line — is one and the same. This, as I see it, is the third explanation for why we just fork the music over. It feels so much like all of the other intimate details that we hand over to these companies day in and day out and even if it feels icky or inequitable, we’re already in the habit of doing it.

I’m not sure I necessarily buy the argument that if you don’t like it, you can just go ahead and log off. Yes, I think it’s incredibly important to give serious thought to the role these corporations play in our lives, and if our participation in their platforms makes our lives or our world better. And indeed we should be using these platforms less or deleting our accounts entirely. But but but, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and just about every other well-funded piece of software on our phone is developed to be addictive, and we are addicted to these technologies.

So orienting an argument solely around the personal responsibility of the user — especially in the case of Spotify — skirts around the collective concerns of users as groups. These companies’ entire business model are based around making money off of us users as an aggregate, and without fail turn around and make either our lives worse or someone else’s life worse.

We perform labor for these platforms for no compensations regularly, unless you consider the gracious opportunity to absentmindedly scroll and never ever give your poor brain a rest, compensation. We are offered continuing access to the products that we are either dependent on (Gmail) or addicted to (posting to Instagram stories). In fact, for the first time, Facebook seems like it was paying users for data, and those were minors below the legal age of employment to whom it gave $20 for total access to all of the data Facebook wanted on their phones. It starts to feel like we’re in the middle of some new industrial revolution, but billowing smoke stacks are clogging out skulls.

Away from Spotify…

Can Spotify completely rob musicians of the potential to benefit from the money their recorded music makes? Fortunately, it’s only one of many many ways of accessing music, and enough people understand that it is not an adequate means for supporting artists. But at its most innocuous, Spotify is not helping us do our thing better, and at its most insidious, it’s coercing us to participate and then stealing money that is rightfully ours. We do labor for this platform and get shafted.

This, of course, is why Bandcamp is so virtuous in comparison. Not only do they make sure creators get paid, but they even run a publication shining lights on new corners and drawing helpful connections between things that may not be obvious for the person navigating its site.

Bandcamp works great for distributing digital albums (I am a fan, as someone who uses it to release fundraiser albums via this very Groove Cafe project), and at least part of the reason why it dominates the market for helping people self-distribute albums is its noble-hearted business practices. Hell, the company is even profitable.

But that’s the thing about Spotify. It’s not profitable, and it doesn’t care about cozying up to anyone who could make it profitable. It doesn’t need to be profitable. If some tax anomaly puts it in the black for a quarter, that’s nice. A simple boycott or mass wave of unsubscribes will not fix the Spotify problem because ultimately Spotify does not rely on your money to run. It relies on VC funding.

And towards cooperative streaming

The best solution to the Spotify problem is to create an alternative that equitably benefits the creators who make its platform robust — giving musicians direct access to the revenue generated from streaming their music.

Centralization likely makes for fundamentally inequitable distribution of profits in a streaming schema. It’s way too easy for any entity that controls the servers the music lives on to set the terms of how much money it will pay for traffic to those servers. In the case of Bandcamp, the wealth is spread. In the case of Spotify, it is not. In a way, we’re lucky Bandcamp cornered the market.

The solution to Spotify I particularly like is a cooperative streaming company where the servers are owned by a decentralized network: the musicians and labels whose music populates the platform. Distributed ownership of servers puts the people releasing music in direct control.

It follows in the emerging Platform Coop movement, where the types of laborers who often work through services like Uber or Taskrabbit are creating their own cooperative platforms that function in nearly identical ways but give them both a significantly higher percentage of the revenue earned. Cooperative enterprises are more democratic businesses, meaning that those workers also have more direct control over the relationship between their job and their lives. It’s basically taking the model employed by enterprises ranging in scale from your town’s food co-op and to the national Ace Hardware chain and applying it to digital business.

Unlike the conventional corporation, cooperatives do not toil to meet the demands of investors, who often want to see increasing profits year over year or other forms of growth. It’s rare that traditional corporations spread profits equitably or make decisions according to the imperatives of its laborers. Cooperatives often do.

If you look at musicians and labels as laborers who are generating revenue for streaming platforms, then it’s not a far leap ask why those workers couldn’t own that streaming platform. No longer would musicians and labels be making money for some tech corporation first and foremost. Instead, they’d be participating in a system that gives them access to their rightful piece of the pie.

One of the central tenets of the worker cooperative is that each worker gets a vote regardless of rank or value produced for the business. This means that the musicians and labels get to make decisions about the direction and policies of the platform. Collectively and cooperatively, they could decide anything from the price of subscriptions to the destiny of the data generated by users’ listening habits to the platforms advertisement policy. In theory, there is a dramatically lower risk of questionable business practices, since decisions are totally oriented around doing right by the collective of people with vested interested in the company, not the growth whims of a corporation with profit-seeking motives.

There has been one attempt at this proposition so far — platform Resonate. It seems like that enterprise was in the process of beta testing when it decided to pause and restructure the project back in November. I’m not entirely sure what snags they ran into, but their arrangement was certainly an interesting one. The Resonate folks believed — perhaps accurately — that the subscription model is not a profitable one, so they implemented a pay-as-you-go scheme whereby users would be charged monthly for the number of tracks they streamed.

It seemed like a pretty complex project. There was a component of purchasing a song by streaming it enough times, a complex cooperative ownership structure, and blockchain implementation for transparency. If the project was unwieldy, it was likely because of the optimism and utopian thinking required to undertake an ambitious project like cooperative streaming with zero precedent. There are clearly so many problems with the way online music distribution works that it’s hard not to try to solve all of them at the same. And when experimenting with an untested business model that forsakes the venture capital that typically allows start-up to start up, cash flow can probably be pretty hard to manage, especially if something goes awry.

But the fact that Resonate hit a stumbling block it couldn’t quite clear doesn’t mean that the cooperative streaming model is an impossible one. I think there are some basics that would require a successful launch, including a connection with an extent music scene or sets of communities; a Kickstarter type apparatus to flush the platform with enough money to get it through its first year or two (part of this time spent on pre-launch development); and a commitment to existing as a relatively small– to mid–scale bespoke platform along the lines of movie streaming analogs like Mubi or Criterion Channel.

And… that’s where it gets kind of fuzzy. I don’t think anyone who tries to develop a cooperative streaming model is going to have a sure idea of how to translate the cooperative model that functions well with brick-and-mortar businesses to the digital realm. But I do think it’s fair to say that if the Internet as a business landscape is to be a sustainable one for regular working and middle class people, we’ll absolutely have to find ways to build these businesses independent of investment structures that are designed to fund 100 companies with the expectation that 99 fail and 1 goes on to make billions. In such a landscape, success for the few means devastation for the many.

One final thought I’ll leave you on. What the fuck does “Spotify” even mean?

Special thanks to Nina Wexelblatt for passing along a lot of useful info that is cited in this article.

— Host

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