Credit: Marc Oliver Paquin via Unsplash

Is there an ethical streaming service?

By Joe Evans

From Spotify to Soundcloud, writer Joe Evans wonders if there is any platform available for musicians to share their music free of exploitation.

Does anyone remember when Taylor Swift removed her entire catalogue from Spotify in 2014? Don’t worry if you had forgotten, her three-year stand against the pathetic rates Spotify pays artists ended after her album 1989 made 10 million sales and the protest was dropped – presumably so the 100 million registered listeners Spotify had in 2017 could keep the momentum of sales going once all the existing fans had already bought their copy. Why are we talking about something that happened years ago and only had a noticeable impact if there was a Swift-shaped hole in your mid-decade #Bangerz playlists? Because Spotify (and all other streaming services, though with less high-profile opposition) still barely pay artists who put their music on the service for streaming, and this looks unlikely to change anytime soon.

Streaming services are – like it or not – the dominant force in the music industry right now. Any number of blogs or industry pieces will explain this as the natural evolution of the torrenting services of the 2000s or attribute the emergence and subsequent popularity of streaming to the convenience and plurality inherent to the model, and they are completely right. For a monthly fee, not much more than the cost of a physical album in HMV, or an ad break every six songs, the end-user can listen to as much music as they want, from any artist whose music is registered to the service. This is a relative paradise for the consumer, as from our point of view we have more music available from a wider variety of artists than ever before. I can discover new artists easily who I would have had no way of finding were it not for their having a Spotify page. The opportunities for new artists to self-release material on the same page as established acts should be an amazing way to boost a fledgling career or boost a steadily growing fanbase.

The trouble instead comes from the point of view of the artist for whom these benefits seem to melt away. Sure, you can reach a wider fanbase, but as a small artist, you can’t make enough money from streaming to cover the costs of recording anything to release to them. Spotify pays between £0.006 and £0.0084 to whoever holds the rights to a song for every time the song is played. This then has to be split between the artist and any producers, features, songwriters and record labels who worked on the song. I don’t want to generalise about the exact cost of making a song or an EP to put on Spotify, as what some artists will agonise over for a year others will write and record in an afternoon. Even if you do everything yourself and operate without a label or manager, you need in excess of 100,000 streams of your music just to make what some students pay each month in rent. Without extra money to spend on advertising and promotion, this is a goal most artists won’t reach. 

Spotify is, of course, a multi-million-dollar company run by a billionaire, and the vast majority of ad revenue goes straight to their shareholders, “justified” with the argument that they built the streaming service, so they get to keep its profits. It is exploitative, unfair and, also, unavoidable if you want to launch a music career on your own, without a label or a deal to help cover your costs (those are predatory-as-hell too, but that’s a topic for a different rant). After all, what other service can a fledgling artist go to? Soundcloud is at least free but has a much smaller user base and you need to grow your following outside the app, while the very appeal of Spotify is the chance to attract new listeners through their algorithm, as attention gets your songs shared wider and added to playlists that will introduce them to a new audience. It’s late capitalism’s greatest hits tour; an exploitative business model, insecure income for the manufacturers of content and a complete lack of accountability from the company, all held together by the lie that you are responsible for your own failure, and the smug knowledge that your only other option is to give up and go home.

The worst part? You can’t even complain about it without looking like you’re whining over nothing or acting like an entitled celebrity, because all the calls to action on this issue come from the wrong people. Someone who relies on their music to pay their bills asking to be paid a fair amount is a far cry from Taylor Swift, who is worth $365 MILLION, declaring that she is boycotting the service because “art should not be free”. This kind of celebrity outburst turns people away from the problem, moving all the attention from Spotify’s exploitative and predatory treatment of the artists who use their platform, to the celeb drama of a millionaire getting upset that they have slightly fewer millions than they think they deserve. Furthermore, calls for fans to boycott Spotify only make matters worse for the struggling artists with smaller followings. Fewer people means a smaller audience for their music.

If you want to help out artists whose music you enjoy, the only secure means of making money from music are tickets to their live performances and buying their merch. Covid has nuked live music for now, so if you want to help, support them with whatever you can. It’s shit that the burden is on the artists and the fans to keep music a viable career, rather than the corporations making millions from our desire to listen to songs we like and other corporations desire to sell adverts to us while we do. I’m not sure what to say should be done about it, to be honest. Sharpen the guillotines? Burn down the capitalist system? That’s where the root of the problem lies.


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