We’re starting off the new year with something a little different. Welcome to the first in a series of articles where we take a look at major music tools and social platforms, from the perspective of both artists and music fans, and think about where they excel and where they need to improve. Obviously our first port of call is the music titan that is Spotify. It has become synonymous with streaming the same way Google has with search engines, and has changed the music industry forever, but is it for better or worse?
Many of the benefits of Spotify stem from its success and the monopoly it holds over streaming. The fact that it is many people’s go-to source for music means that it is way ahead of the competition when it comes to compatibility. Even the most basic of phones and computers these days will likely be able to run it, you can share a song on just about any social media platform you like and be sure that not only will it work perfectly, but the vast majority of people who see it will be able to listen. You can connect your profile to ticket apps and use it to recommend upcoming gigs, you can even connect it to numerous dating apps to try to connect with people over a shared taste in music. You could also argue that Spotify is incredibly user-friendly and simple to use but you do then wonder if it is a kind of chicken and egg scenario: does it feel user friendly just because it is so dominant and we’ve become so used to the layout?
With it being such a driving force in music, it has immense sway in breaking new artists. I’ve known plenty of artists whose entire career plan boiled down to biding their time until they featured on a playlist, that’s how much of a big deal it is. While I wouldn’t recommend taking this route, the possibility of a track going viral is an understandably big incentive for artists. Even if your song doesn’t find its way onto the big playlists, Spotify will still find new you new fans thanks to it having one of the best algorithms out there. It falters slightly on keeping you up to date on the newest releases, but when it comes to recommending music based on your listening habits it does an excellent job in leading you in the right direction.
One of the biggest draws of Spotify is also the main thing that people criticise; the fact that you have pretty much all of recorded music available to you at the push of a button for free. I’ll get on to the downsides of this momentarily, but you can’t deny the allure it holds. For those bemoaning a sense of modern entitlement it’s worth bearing in mind all the videos on YouTube, or the vast font of human knowledge that is Wikipedia, both of which are free to access. Having a vast online archive that is open to anyone is not a new concept. The alternative is a world of vying competitors each with their own exclusive artist catalogues, the likes of which we saw when Tidal first launched.
By far the biggest, and most pressing issue with Spotify is the pittance that they pay artists per stream. Somewhere around $0.006 of every dollar goes to the artist. You’d need to have well over 10000 streams each and every day just to scrape by at minimum wage. None except the biggest name artists can afford to make a living purely from recorded music, everyone else will have to resort to other methods such as playing more live shows and selling more merch. The sad fact is that Spotify could bump up their payments by one decimal place, paying ten times more to artists, and it would likely be months before the bosses felt even the slightest dent in their bank accounts.
The fact that Spotify is by far the biggest music platform on the planet means that their influence completely dictates chart positions and album sales. Let’s look at an example, take Drake’s most recent record. It broke all streaming records on release and became one of the biggest “selling” albums of 2018. It’s no coincidence that on its release his face was bannered across the homepage, his music was shoved into as many of their official playlists that they could remotely justify and his likeness adorned all their covers. This wasn’t the Spotify bosses taking a liking to a track from an up-and-coming artist, this was them being paid off to make a record a hit. Combining this pay-to-win bullshit with the asinine way that streams apparently translate into sales, means that both the charts and album sales figures are entirely meaningless. It’s all about who holds the most sway at Spotify HQ.
While causing major issues for artists and the wider industry, I have to admit that Spotify has little to criticise when it comes to actually listening to music. The only real oddity surrounds the ads on the free version, the vast majority of which just promote the premium version. I don’t blame them for wanting people to upgrade, but they could have produced the exact same effect (annoying people into premium with adverts) by using ads that other companies have actually paid for. You don’t have to be a genius to see it’s poor business sense.
It’s never been this easy to find new music, and the flip side of that means that for artists it has never been easier for the wider world to find your music and hopefully connect with it. However new fans aren’t enough when you’re being paid a pittance. Folks in the industry often lament the irony of the fact that bands used to tour to promote their album, whereas now they put out an album as an excuse to tour as that’s where the money is. For music fans Spotify is ideal, for musicians it’s far from it. The worry is that, as with most powerful and influential institutions, they may have become too big to change.