Spotify: Evil Incarnate or Convenient Scapegoat?

Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. But who is to blame, really, for Spotify’s unethical business decisions?

You might have seen the news that in the latest Spotify upgrade, you can now see producing and songwriting credits by right-clicking on any track. Although this feature is still quite robust upon launch, Spotify promise to develop it to display full credits for all music over time. The announcement follows last year’s news that Spotify would be running a global initiative named Secret Genius, which aims to support songwriters and producers in the form of workshops, curated playlists, awards, podcasts, etc.

Spotify has had a bad rep for years, most recently due to the $1.6 billion lawsuit filed by Wixen Music Publishing. It is common knowledge that Spotify’s per-stream compensation is laughable, and much worse than that of other streaming services. However, this is not necessarily their fault. As unpopular as this opinion might be, I think Spotify is doing exactly what it should be doing. Any criticism and lawsuit blown their way is really a lament of the system in which Spotify operates. Let me expand on this.

Technology and law don’t get along very well. Whereas the former changes before it even settles, the latter is more like an old conservative man who’s lived in Yorkshire for his entire life. Change is not his pal. Licensing law, as a result, has not quite caught up with today’s listening habits. Technically, licensing law has not really changed properly since CDs. There are some robust rules around streaming music, but it is still treated like a quirky subsection of music consumption when it is quickly becoming the main method of doing so. You can hardly blame a gigantic corporation like Spotify for abusing this neglect in the law.

The only service that has a decent pay-per-stream rate is Tidal. Tidal is currently owned by Jay-Z, who is not only a musician, but also a very savvy businessman. Having a higher per-stream compensation rate in this case has not been put in place because Mr. Carter cares so much about the art form (which I’m sure he does, but that is beside the point). Of course he would implement a higher compensation for streams. He is, after all, also cashing in money on that side of things. Even if it’s not as much as Spotify saves with its low rates, it comes with a big old stroke of the ego, which is something musicians love almost as much as money.

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I wholeheartedly believe that Spotify is a scapegoat for what is essentially a broken system. This doesn’t mean that I think the current rates are fair, but there is a very obvious reason Spotify doesn’t pay more to the artist per stream, and it is that legally they don’t have to.

Which brings me to my next point. Musician think they are supposed to get a major share of the money, as they supply the product that is being consumed. Although at first glance this looks very logical, this is not how our current capitalist system operates. If you compare the music industry to any other company, you will see that the people on the ground, doing the actual labour that establishes what a company is for, are paid the least amount of money. Their roles are over being stretched to absorb as many responsibilities as possible without it technically being in breach of contract. These people are managed and monitored by people who make slightly more. The higher up in the chain you go, the less hands get dirty. However, when things go wrong, the managers and directors are more likely to be held accountable. This goes up and up until you get to the people who make the most money. You can argue they do the least, but at the top of the pyramid, they also have the most at stake. If they are a clock, everyone who works for them is one of its many cogs. One cog stops working, and the clock no longer fulfils its purpose. Capitalism is by no means a fair system, but it is what we have and musicians are a part of it like everyone else.

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Saying that Spotify is the problem is simplistic and naive. Spotify is an industry leader that supplies where there is demand. In addition, they actually do care about their product. They make music accessible for all, and have singlehandedly destroyed illegal downloading. A self-important artist like Thom Yorke might think that it is acting in a unethical way, but as long as he can wander around Ace Hotel like he owns the place, I find it hard to feel bad for him. Simply proclaiming that this is on Spotify is trying to solve a symptom and not the cause.

Picture this: you’re looking to buy a new pair of trainers. You could get these super ethical organically-sourced super sneakers from a small local company run by a hip black queer woman, they will last you forever but cost £900. Alternatively you can pop down to Sports Direct and get last years’ Nikes for 20 quid. In your heart of course you would love to support a local superwoman, but in the meantime you’re already halfway down Oxford Street without even thinking about it. Maybe every now and then you will wander into your local greengrocers and walk out with a loose sweet potato. Maybe you actively recycle (most of the time). Maybe you buy a vinyl in an independent record shop sometimes. Yet you also enjoy showers that are slightly longer than necessary, and sometimes you leave the lights on when you go out for an errand because you’ll only be gone for 20 minutes. As consumers we are ethical when we want to be, or when we feel like our budget allows us to. Why would corporation be any different?

Spotify spearheading several groundbreaking campaigns to support producers and songwriters, plus giving them the credits where they are due, might look like an attempt to redeem themselves in the light of all this controversy. It might be just that. I’d like to believe that it is acting from a place of sincerity. Like you and me when we do make that ethical decision. Everyone, person and company alike, needs to navigate the current socio-economic landscape. We will Instagram pictures of our green smoothie, but all know how amazing McDonalds can taste at two in the morning, too. People are hypocrites, and people run the world’s corporations. This is why we need copyright law to step its game up. Spotify is the perfect case study to show us what is not working at the moment. Yet it is not on Spotify to change the system we live in. While we have what we have, we need to work to make the system more fair, equal, and ethical. Reevaluating how the market works and how contracts reflect this is vital, but so are Spotify’s campaigns. After all, awareness often triggers change. Let’s hope the industry and its lawmakers will be among those listening.

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  1. […] dough. I don’t fully agree with the “Spotify is making musicians poor” argument (read why in this article), it is definitely true that more money goes to musicians from CD sales than from […]

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