In late January, Neil Young pulled his music from Spotify in protest of the platform’s star Joe Rogan broadcasting his ill-conceived skepticism of the COVID vaccine to his millions of listeners. To quote the legend himself, “They can have Rogan or Young. They can’t have both.”
Fellow musicians: what Neil Young understands, what he’s trying to tell us, is that it’s our music that’s being sold so that Joe Rogan can get paid comfortably to say the n-word over and over again, to spread hateful myths about trans athletes that justify the denial of trans life, to just ask some questions about if vaccines cause heart conditions and ivermectin cures COVID.
And fellow fans, what Neil wants you to understand is that Spotify doesn’t have to remain powerful forever just because it’s convenient to use. Spotify actually puts all of us music fans in a position to undercut the money musicians should rightfully be earning in order to pad Joe Rogan’s salary.
In a nutshell, Spotify’s economics work like this: if you were to get a group of musicians together to riff in a studio for three hours and then you distributed that music through Spotify, you’d get a third of a penny every time someone listens to it. It would take thousands of listens to even pay for the pizza you order for the group after the session wraps. But, if Joe Rogan gets some friends together and riffs in the studio for three hours, Spotify guarantees he’ll pull in almost $5 million per month.
What the Spotify corporation wants you to believe is that Joe Rogan deserves to make that much more money because his show is that much more popular than your band. And sure, unless you’re Lil Nas X and the people you hired were a crack team of session musicians and producers, Joe Rogan is more popular.
Let it be clear though, Joe Rogan is just one person getting very rich off Spotify’s hegemony in the music industry. The Joe Rogan Experience, if anything, is a weird case because it’s an example of Spotify using its industry heft in music to try to corner the podcast world, and in doing so, the company ends up paying a conspiratorially minded wingnut a dumbfounding amount of money. For the most part it’s not podcasters profiting off Spotify – it’s the labels and investors who capitalized it. The answer to the question “why does Joe Rogan get paid so much” is therefore tied up in the question of how Spotify got so rich and powerful in the first place.
Spotify has a basic value proposition for the working musician. Unfortunately, it’s not that one day, if you manage to make it big, you’ll make Joe Rogan bucks. It’s that you don’t have a choice. You need your music on Spotify. It’s where the listeners are and, hey, those thirds of pennies will start adding up to whole pennies before you know it. If you get 4,667 streams every month, that’ll even pay for your Spotify subscription.
But the weird thing about Spotify is it acts like a market from the musician’s perspective and like a library from the listener’s. As fans, we have instant access to every album by many of our favorite artists playing at crisp sound quality — like if radio never had static, car commercials, or bad songs. It’s kind of an online music utopia.
The adventurous listener will find that no genre is out of reach, and that they will be able to dive deep into regional styles that were once only conceivably heard by traveling or finding a specialty record store. As the music journalist Joshua Minsoo Kim pointed out a couple of years back, people looking for non-Western pop music will often find Spotify at its best.
You can live in Newark, NJ and keep up with all of the week’s hottest tracks in Nigerian Afrobeats, or a kid in Lawrence, KS diving into a bottomless well of K-Pop, or a dad in Western Massachusetts with a line on more doom metal than you were ever able to buy in a record store as a teen.
You get this all for, at most, $13 per month, which is the lower limit of what a single new CD cost 20 years ago, in 2002. And that’s before adjusting for inflation. Does that mean CDs were too expensive? Maybe, maybe not. Does it mean Spotify is a hell of a deal? Absolutely.
And let me be clear – there’s not some epic struggle between musicians and their fans when it comes to Spotify. Musicians are obviously music fans too, and all of the same benefits for listeners hold. The problem with Spotify isn’t that it’s an easily accessible, gigantic music library. The problem with Spotify is that it tries to trap everyone in their ecosystem – musicians and listeners alike – and makes really bad decisions with that money. We might even feel like we don’t have a choice but to opt in, and then we certainly don’t have a say in how it’s run.
Neil Young realized that actually he had a choice. He realized that actually his music and all of the people listening to his music do not need to help Spotify fill its coffers and enable them to make reckless decisions endorsing celebrities dealing in dangerous insinuations. Not everyone has a choice. Some artists don’t have a say over how labels distribute their music, and others genuinely need or desire the exposure.
This is where we’ll find some thorny questions. Is it possible to walk away from Spotify? Do we want to settle for a better Spotify? Would that mean fighting for a fairer platform, or a fairer market, or a fairer system overall? Finding the right question and finding the right answers starts in the same place. We know what’s wrong with Spotify, but we have to figure out how we got here.
When music was free
As Damon Krukowski, one of the most articulate voices on the subject of Spotify makes clear in a recent edition of his newsletter Dada Drummer, Spotify is basically an arbitrage model. They offer music for as close to free as possible in order to attract the maximum number of monthly listeners and amount of investment dollars possible. Those Silicon Valley investors and major record labels who have effectively only ever been good at screwing musicians over don’t care about music. They care about a return on investment in a tech company.
This is an important point to drill into. Spotify stepped in to solve what was widely construed as a huge crisis inspired by Napster about 20 years ago. Napster was what we would now call an app – it was a piece of software that let users share and download mp3s for free. In many ways, it delivered on an early promise of the web that information should be free and the like-minded users should enjoy these unprecedented means for connecting to one another.
When I interviewed Damon on the Reimagining the Internet podcast a few months ago, he told me how he and many professional musicians he knew welcomed Napster. They wanted their music to be heard. But the record industry made a huge stink about Napster, and successfully lobbied for a legal effort to not just shut down the app but crack down on “pirates”, which often just meant especially rabid music fans who were excited to access whatever they wanted to listen to. Those so-called pirates were often the first people in line to pay for concert tickets, t-shirts, and even the very albums they were downloading.
Napster shut down but Pandora’s Box was opened. For the next decade-and-a-half, filesharing shaped the way that the Internet was used for music. There were huge private communities sharing torrent files that acted as audacious archives of recorded music, and a sprawling lattice of blogs cropped up to talk about all of this music that was suddenly available online.
Sure, there were plenty of blogs sharing music without permission, but the most visible and well-regarded ones posted tracks with the consent of artists and labels within a post that ultimately helped promote the recording. In fact, my first job out of college was editing one of those very blogs. We used our connections with artists and labels to book them for events at a venue in Brooklyn that we operated too, which very often meant we were promoting a new album online and then helping that artist or band play a sold-out show in a 300-person venue.
That type of support network – essential for emerging artists and indie musicians – is meaningless to major record labels whose bottom lines are tied up in producing albums that get certified Gold and Platinum by the RIAA. Those labels were never very pleased with this ecosystem where music flowed free. Yes, they lost business, but it’s hard to be too sympathetic for a group of labels who often tried to exert cartel-like control over music distribution channels and often tied artists up in unfair contracts.
There is a reason why independent labels came to flourish in the 1980s through 2000s, and often that was because indies might strike fairer deals with musicians and could more nimbly adapt to the record industry that occurred outside of Sam Goodie and Barnes and Noble. But, the music economy was still disrupted for the most influential players in it, and they were always looking for a way to stay in the black.
From piracy to plunder
One day, a scrappy Swedish start-up downloaded a bunch of music for free and posted it on their service that allowed anyone with their app to stream it. Some, such as the researchers who wrote the book Spotify Teardown, would go as far to say Spotify built its app on piracy.
Spotify quickly gained attention from venture capitalists when it showed you could sell advertising on this streaming service and sometimes even get people to subscribe for less than the cost of one CD every month. It then turned around and offered itself as an investment opportunity for those major labels losing the revenue in the Napster era, who finally saw a way to monopolize the music market once again as shareholders in the dominant music distribution platform.
This is the important part. When you, as a musician, post a track and make a third of a cent, you’re basically donating your art, your labor, your years of practice, your passion, and your best creative ideas to a company that basically exists to pay other people. Those people are mostly suits at Sony and Columbia and Goldman Sachs, but they’re also Joe Rogan.
There’s no reason to believe that those labels are just making a third of a cent per stream—in fact, they probably get a much sweeter deal if they’re investors. And those major labels’ music are pushed to listeners in curated playlists, which are either algorithmically created or a mix of algorithmic and human selection.
Spotify effectively organizes a major label cartel. Universal, Warner, and Sony each either directly invest in Spotify or have plum licensing and development deals with the company, rendering Spotify a vehicle for major labels to team up and exert their influence over the streaming marketplace. Such a union pervades payola. The majors don’t compete on Spotify. Instead, they have a pipeline into people’s phones and the semi-public spaces like restaurants and stores where Spotify playlists sound from the speakers.
According to a survey released earlier this year by Midia, Spotify’s only major competition is Apple with its Apple Music product and Amazon with Amazon Music. In my opinion, the 8% market share allocated to YouTube music seems slim, given that it likely doesn’t account for the user behavior of listening to random tracks accessible via YouTube’s main search. What this all implies is that the battle for supremacy in the music distribution is really a battle between the corporate colossuses that infiltrate many other parts of our lives. In that light, it makes perfect sense that labels would rally around a tech company that was independent of Google, Amazon, and Apple.
One service that doesn’t register on Midia’s pie chart is Tidal. That service, for those who remember, was actually supposed to be the equitable choice, launched by a group of musicians led by Jay-Z, to give artists a fair crack at getting streaming revenue. Around Tidal’s launch in 2015, Jay-Z told the New York Times “The challenge is to get everyone to respect music again, to recognize its value. Water is free. Music is $6, but no one wants to pay for music.”
A lot has changed since 2015. Spotify claims to have 180 million subscribers. Bandcamp reports that across the 17 days since March 2020 when it waived its transaction fee, people have paid for $70 million of music using the platform. Bandcamp is apparently doing well enough selling music that it just got acquired by Epic Games.
Clearly, we’re willing to pay for digital music if we know we’re supporting artists directly, and we’re willing to pay for services if we know we’ll find music we’ll like from them. Right now, Spotify is the dominant recommendation system, a kind of revamp of the radio model with its curated playlists and algorithmic recommendation. And just like how people used to listen to the radio then go out to buy records, it’s reasonable to believe plenty of people are finding music on Spotify then buying it on platforms like Bandcamp.
But, in that arrangement, it remains entirely in the listeners’ hands to leverage Spotify as a fair system. For that matter, the acquisition by Epic means that Bandcamp now shares an investor with Spotify: Tencent, a Chinese conglomerate. The tech industry isn’t really giving us as music lovers, much less consumers, real alternatives to getting all of our digital music a handful of big corporations and investment firms.
Can there be an alternative recommendation system that actually values music and musicians, that’s responsive to the people who use the platform and is not a scheme for record industry execs?
Liz Pelly has suggested that the path forward might be constructing a streaming model that resembles the public library system, offering a vast selection to members for free while using public funding to pay artists and labels for the rights to distribute music. It’s a wonderful idea, and in fact the Smithsonian is already doing something like this with its Global Jukebox project.
But there could also be a user-generated recommendation system, one that fosters music discovery as a community practice. This has existed many times before on the Internet, both in the aforementioned music blogosphere, and on private torrent trackers like What.cd, where users would create massive collages of all the music on a given label, or in a given genre, or of a similar vibe.
Maybe this is even a place where a new model of social media would come in handy, where small-to-medium communities of fans could come together to build out discovery systems around some sort of pre-defined cataloging architecture.
Picture a Spotify playlist where each track is both purchasable and linked to a web of similar songs. Or even picture the used record marketplace Discogs, with its comprehensive catalog architecture, tailored to purchasing digital music and giving users a space to have fun collectively curating from its massive library of metadata. Channeling the participatory culture of 2000s and 2010s piracy into the support model offered by Bandcamp could be a real revolution for the health of independent music and the kind of Internet-first genres that proliferate among Gen Z listeners on Soundcloud and Discord.
Admittedly, anything built with music streaming as its backbone is either going to require navigating headache-inducing copyright regimes or dealing with music industry lawyers hired by the very companies investing in Spotify. And you need lots and lots of server space to host and serve those tunes. If anyone wants to build a tool that links to purchases and similar artists based on streaming playlists, you’d probably do best to treat Spotify and YouTube like already-existing infrastructure and hack something together that piggybacks on their playlist technology using an external app or website.
But taking the pile of metadata that is Discogs and building participatory social media around it that lets users undertake curation as a collective activity and gives users the opportunity to buy digital music or even just Venmo artists directly – that’s pretty possible. The bigger question—as is always the question with cool tools online—is will anyone use the thing when they have options like Spotify and Bandcamp at hand.
If there’s one last lesson we can learn from Neil Young, it’s just try something new. He famously developed a funny looking digital music player called Pono that plays incredibly high-quality audio files and it was a flop. But he’s kept at the idea of finding a thoughtful, enticing way to package digital music for the true believers, and has developed a really wonderful digital archive where fans can pay to access selected recordings of concerts from throughout Young’s career.
I hope we all choose Young, because we’re not just choosing a rejection of Rogan and Spotify. We’re choosing Neil because we know there will be something so much better than getting our hands tied by greedy record labels and conservative reactionaries. We know that we should be able to enjoy what we love on our own terms.