Feeling guilty about Spotify? Maybe you should be

“People thought, ‘Oh, the Internet is magic. Money (for artists) will come from somewhere.’” Guess what. It didn’t.

Daniel Ek, CEO of Swedish music streaming service Spotify, at a press conference in Tokyo in 2016. TORU YAMANAKA/AFP via Getty Images/file

A confession: I finally have Spotify — and I love it.

I relented in the early days of the pandemic and got hooked immediately. According to the app’s “2020 Wrapped” feature, I spent 580 hours listening to music and podcasts. I streamed Phoebe Bridgers’s version of “You Missed My Heart” 37 times, only slightly more than Waxahatchee’s “Can’t Do Much.”

It pains me to admit this. Not because I’ve fallen out of love with Bridgers’ shimmery vocals or Katie Crutchfield’s perfect trill. But because I’d like whatever money I spend on music to go, primarily, to the people who created it. That it’s going instead to a behemoth streaming service whose profits topped $1.8 billion last year is shameful.

This is not a new lament, I know. Since its launch in 2008, Spotify has been capturing an ever larger share of the listening public’s money. Today, it has 144 million premium subscribers worldwide, each paying at least $9.99 a month. Add the tens of millions of music fans who listen on other streaming services — Apple Music, Amazon, Tidal, YouTube — and that’s a bundle of dough in the pockets of the wrong people.

The pandemic has made the math even worse, depriving artists of the ability to perform live, which, increasingly, is the way even established acts sustain themselves.

Should I feel bad about having Spotify? If you care about music, and supporting the people who make it, I’d say yes. It feels like a betrayal. But that’s where we are.

The appeal of Spotify is obvious. I can be deep in the woods with the dog and stream a song by Bert Jansch or Frank Ocean or Rickie Lee Jones or XTC or Suicide or Kendrick Lamar or ... you get the idea. They’re all at my fingertips. And in addition to the usual suspects, Spotify’s inventory of 50 million songs includes a lot that’s unfamiliar or hard to find elsewhere. I discovered a 1965 LP by Scottish folkie Jackson C. Frank — produced by Paul Simon, no less — that’s great; and I had only a passing knowledge of Malian singer/multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Touré before Spotify turned me on to “The Source,” which became one of my most-played albums of 2020.

But here’s the problem: Spotify’s business model is based on stiffing artists. The company doesn’t even pay acts directly. It puts about 70 percent of its revenue in a pot, which record labels, distributors, and publishers then divvy up among artists based on their share of total streams.

For example, if Bad Bunny accounts for 4 percent of all subscriber streams, then Bad Bunny gets 4 percent of Spotify’s royalties pool. (If you don’t know who Bad Bunny is, get with it: He was Spotify’s most-streamed artist in 2020, with 8.3 billion streams.) Incredibly, just 10 percent of artists account for 90 percent of total streams.

Bad Bunny performs a medley at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in Las Vegas in 2019. The Puerto Rican superstar is the music platform’s most-streamed artist of the year with 8.3 billion streams globally. Eric Jamison/Invision/AP

While the per-stream rate varies based on geographic region, among other factors, industry observers say Spotify pays most artists between $.003 and $.005 — one-third of a penny to one-half of a penny — for each stream. In other words, unless you’re Drake, Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, or Bad Bunny, you’re probably making a pittance from Spotify.

“Huge thanks to Spotify for my 35 billion streams this year. Going to use my earnings to purchase a sock,” tweeted bassist Jason Narducy, who’s recorded with such indie all-stars as Bob Mould, Superchunk, and Britt Daniel.

I didn’t listen to Bad Bunny this year. Yet a portion of my monthly subscription fee is in his bank account. Meanwhile, artists I did listen to — Kathleen Edwards, Sylvan Esso, and Adrienne Lenker — probably got little, if any, of my money because their streams don’t amount to much, at least as a percentage of the total.

The reality is artists with a good-size audience are making peanuts. Last month, English singer Nadine Shah rued her Spotify earnings in testimony before a committee of the British House of Commons. Shah said she has 102,000 monthly Spotify listeners, and a couple of songs with more than three million combined streams, but she can’t pay her bills.

“The earnings from my streaming, they’re not significant enough to keep the wolf away from the door,” Shah told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which is investigating streaming’s impact on the music industry. “I’m in a position as an artist with a substantial profile, a substantial fan base, is critically acclaimed, but ... I’m in the position now where I’m struggling to pay my rent.”

In lieu of meaningful income from streaming, many artists rely on touring to make money. But there’s been none of that for 10 months, and there won’t be any time soon. That’s why Australian singer Emma Swift didn’t put her well-reviewed album of Bob Dylan covers, “Blonde on the Tracks,” on Spotify right away. She couldn’t afford to.

“I make the bulk of my wages playing live shows, and when the pandemic shut down all the venues, I needed to find a way to keep myself fed,” says Swift, who lives in Nashville.

Instead of streaming her album, she decided to sell it the old-fashioned way — on vinyl, CD, cassette, and digital download — via Bandcamp, a digital music site favored by many independent artists because it’s less miserly than Spotify. Fans buy music and merch, and Bandcamp takes a 15 percent cut of digital sales and 10 percent of physical sales. (On a few Fridays during the pandemic, it’s taken no cut at all.) That worked for Swift. Since August, she’s sold about 10,000 copies of her album, recouping her costs and then some. Because Swift owns her own recordings, Spotify would pay her more than some other artists — about $4,000 for one million streams — but still.

“That’s 200 records sold,” she says, laughing.

Nashville-based singer Emily Swift sold her new album on Bandcamp during the pandemic, instead of immediately posting on Spotify. "I needed to find a way to keep myself fed." Autumn Dozier

Ugh. This makes me feel even worse about bingeing Teenage Fanclub’s catalog on Spotify, but Swift says it shouldn’t. Her beef isn’t with me.

“I don’t have a problem with people using streaming services. What I do have a problem with is wage exploitation,” says Swift, whose LP started streaming on Spotify Wednesday. “It’s not up to the consumers who use Spotify to pay the wages of the musicians. They pay for a subscription.”

“When you dine at a restaurant, you assume that the restaurant is paying the staff,” Swift says. “In the case of [Spotify CEO] Daniel Ek, he’s not paying. The wages are unfair.”

So what’s the answer? I called David Lowery, the former frontman of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker who’s now a business lecturer at the University of Georgia. Lowery is a fierce advocate for musicians’ rights and a critic of streaming services like Spotify.

He says the average music lover used to spend about $500 a year on music, but that’s dropped dramatically in the digital era. These days, people might spend $120 a year, at most, while millions more spend nothing, listening to their favorite artists for free on ad-supported platforms such as YouTube.

“People thought, ‘Oh, the Internet is magic. Money [for artists] will come from somewhere,’” he says.

Guess what. It didn’t.

But even if Spotify wanted to — and it definitely doesn’t — it can’t unilaterally increase the paltry amount it pays artists. Because, as Lowery explains, the rate is actually set by an obscure three-person panel of federal judges — the US Copyright Royalty Board — based on a percentage of streaming services’ revenues. Songwriters have consistently sought to raise the rate, while Spotify and other streamers oppose an increase.

“I’m pretty sure the authors of the Constitution didn’t intend to concentrate that much power in the hands of unelected officials,” Lowery says.

In the end, I don’t know how I feel about Spotify. I’ve spent the equivalent of 24 days listening to it since April. Amid so much misery, it’s been a comfort. I’ve discovered some great music I didn’t know existed, including “McGear,” a stellar 1974 album by Paul McCartney’s younger brother, Mike McGear, for which McCartney wrote and performed the music with Wings.

But then I think about musicians like Tasmin Little, the classical violinist extolled by critics for her “slashing, no-holds-barred” style. In May, Little, who’s English, tweeted that Spotify paid her a total of 12 pounds for 5-6 million streams.

“It’s so damn disrespectful,” replied one of her followers.

It’s true, it is. And I feel complicit. Don’t you?

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