Beer and Pavement

On Spotify

Posted in Records by SM on January 13, 2014

Recently, Stephen Malkmus was interviewed by Rolling Stone, closing with the following question and answer after admitting that he doesn’t make playlists “on those evil Spotify places” for his daughters.

RS: You’re anti-Spotify, then?

SM: Definitely. I think it sucks.

I am one of those parents who has made a Spotify playlist for my kid – a mixture of songs I think she should like and songs she actually likes. I use Spotify all the time. It streams throughout my work day, at home, and sometimes on the road. I used to make a daily playlist with the help of my Facebook network and that has turned into its own co-op. And yes, I pay a monthly fee not to hear commercials and to have the service available anywhere I go.

Spotify really is ideal. I don’t have to worry about the longevity and capacity of my iPod. There’s no need to figure out a way to lug my records everywhere. I have a service available to me that pretty much will allow me to discover and peruse almost any artist or band on the planet. Spotify is a fantastic breakthrough in music and technology.

But why do I feel so guilty for using the streaming service?

Well, other than Malk’s reaction to Spotify, there are other reasons I question its ethics. As you may or may not know, I am a big proponent of craft and indie industries, indie-craft, if you will. It irks me to see large corporations like Spotify and record labels profit from the hard work of artists. At the same time, musicians get a tiny cut of what is a billion dollar pot. There are plenty of reasons not to use Spotify.

Lost is the record collecting culture that used to be a huge part of music. Even those brought up on CDs long for the days of owning something again. Although almost any album by almost any artist is available to stream, it’s never really yours or free of the Spotify interface.

There are the horror stories of artists getting fleeced by the Swedes via dinky royalty payments. Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi famously broke down his paltry payments from streaming services on Pitchfork. And it can be argued that Spotify is not the friend of new and lesser known bands as compared to the payouts offered to catalogued bands and their corporate overlords.

Of course, this isn’t the whole story. Consider what the rest of Malkmus’ quote stated:

That doesn’t mean my music isn’t on there, though. I’m against a lot of things that I do in life, and I still do them, so there’s a lot of self-deception in all our lives. At least in the life of an unprincipled musician.

So, based on this statement, Spotify can be seen as a necessary evil. It’s akin to doing radio interviews or promos at best and selling songs to corporations for commercials at worst.

Of course, the real problem in all of this is the record industry as a whole. Why are we blaming a streaming tool like Spotify and not the greedy corporate leaches known as major record labels. Billy Bragg – champion of the working class – thinks as much and I tend to agree.

In his critique of the confluence of Pandora and Spotify, David Marcias takes issue and makes it clear why Spotify actually benefits musicians. Essentially, he makes my argument in favor of Spotify for me. (Yes, that’s where I’m going with all of this.)

To compare the two in terms of what they’re paying out is a completely fallacious construct. When Mr. Krukowski complains about the amount that he got paid on his BMI statement for his song, what he should be comparing it to is how much he got paid for an equivalent number of spins at terrestrial radio on that same BMI statement. My guess is that he did not get 7900 spins on terrestrial radio; one of the great gifts of Pandora and other tech-based companies like them is that they give an opportunity for music to be heard that terrestrial radio has neither the bandwidth nor interest to play. Technology has been a boon to independent musicians. I would also like to ask what his compensation from Sound Exchange was, both as an artist and what his label made from those spins. Whatever it was, it was more than what was paid out by terrestrial radio, who pays no compensation to owners of recordings. If you want to protest THAT, I’ll grab my pitchfork and meet you in the town square.

Basically, artists are getting paid per play at a better rate than what they get for radio, which is basically nothing. Additionally, Spotify (and Pandora) offer artists exposure the marketing departments at their labels, radio stations, or MTV (LULZ) combined. They’re getting paid and exposed on a tool they despise? That doesn’t make sense.

Then consider the pirating issue. While pirating music does offer a certain amount of exposure, it offers nothing monetarily for artists. Pirating sites and participants are the real enemies of musicians, not Spotify. Although I don’t totally trust the correlation, Spotify has made the argument that their service has contributed to the decrease in pirating in the Netherlands. It’s a fairly weak argument, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to imagine Spotify or similar services making pirating obsolete or at least unnecessary.

I use Spotify and don’t have a problem with it. I pay a monthly fee so that I have access offline and don’t have to hear ads. I make endless playlists. Still, I generally listen to whole albums. Several recent discoveries have been via the service. And even then, I still buy a lot of vinyl or go to shows when I can. If anything, Spotify has improved my financial support of many great artists.

Is Spotify evil? Maybe. It is a corporation making money off of art. That said, I’m just happy I can listen to the music I love whenever I want and wherever I want.

BTW, most of what should be read on the Spotify issue can be found here and a playlist celebrating our corporate overlords is below via Spotify, of course.

6 Responses

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  1. Alex Karklins (@alex_karklins) said, on January 13, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks for this. I really love Spotify. After several years of moving around, many of the records, tapes, and CDs I had collected since high school were long gone. I love having the ability to rebuild my record collection and create the long form mix tapes that were impossible back in the 90s. I’m glad you brought up the streaming service vs. piracy argument since, although I was tempted, I never considered illegally downloading the gaps in my music library.

    • Zac said, on January 14, 2014 at 10:11 am

      Yeah, there’s a generation gap in music piracy. I would say the older end of Generation X typically doesn’t partake in illegal downloading while anyone younger (and I’m talking people just a few years younger than I) see no problem with it.

      To be fair, record/download sales barely pay the bills for most musicians. It’s touring and merch sales that really pay.

  2. Mike said, on January 15, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    I’ve only read stories from the anti-Spotify crowd, so this was a refreshing counterpoint. I do suspect that Spotify hires people to go on pro-Spotify rants in some blog posts’ comments (David Lowery from Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker had a good post railing against Spotify, and I’d say nearly 80% of the comments were against him), which is a turnoff but doesn’t necessarily mean that Spotify is evil. Manipulative, maybe.

    I’ve thought about paying for Spotify, but I figure if I’m paying $10 I might as well just buy an album each month instead.

    • Zac said, on January 15, 2014 at 12:36 pm

      Yeah, I’m not naive. Spotify is not perfect, but I think it’s not hurting music by any means. $10 a month for a record just doesn’t happen, except if it’s a used record. I’d rather not own digital versions of music. I want it available, but I prefer owning vinyl.

      • Mike said, on January 15, 2014 at 12:43 pm

        I do usually end up spending a little more than $10/month on music. I came of age in the audiocassette/CD era, so the transition to digital (and then vinyl again) hasn’t been easy for me.

      • Zac said, on January 15, 2014 at 12:46 pm

        It was hard at first and required a big investment, but like any hobby, it settles over time.

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