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.

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