You will have seen of late a fair amount of boo-hooing in the press and blogs (and when you turn the lights on in the morning and when you are running a bath and when you open your cereal cupboard) from people in musical outfits bemoaning streaming services in general, and Spotify in particular. It is killing music, they say, ripping off the artist and ensuring no future for our children. It is the end of days. We’ve even had a bit of the aforementioned boo-hoos on this site, with Armine from Rosetta the latest to bemoan the way that Spotify rips off the artist. Somehow this didn’t get the same attention as when David Byrne took to the Grauniad to bemoan it, and Thom Yorke of little known struggling indie band Radiohead had a pop. But while it’s easy to understand why multi millionaires get to espouse their views in broadsheet newspapers, nobody has really yet stood up for us, the end users. To the Demon Pigeon-copter!
I get the arguments. Spotify pays the artists very very little. This is rubbish, and I’m not about to argue that Spotify should not be paying artists more than it is. But here’s the flipside to the argument. In all of the talk of the artist in this discussion, there is very little talk of us, the end user, the consumer. The truth is that Spotify (and one presumes, other streaming services) offers a user experience completely unparalleled, and therein lies the challenge for the industry.
When I grew up, in that dim and distant land we called the 90’s, I could afford maybe one or two albums a month, providing there weren’t any dodgy Steven Seagal films I wanted to buy on VHS too. This exposure to a scant few new albums would be supplemented by the tape trading that would go on in every school in the country, with people making each other tapes or lending albums out so that you could access more than the tiny sliver of music that you could afford. This carried on into the new millennium, until at some point music piracy came along, and I would use this to supplement the albums that I really wanted to buy. Then I stopped buying them, because, well, I’m a bit of a shit and you could get them for free, and there were more pressing things to buy, like treble vodka and Irn Bru at the local indie disco.
Sound familiar? It should do, it’s probably a slight variant on your own musical journey. Did I feel guilty about pirating? Of course I did, from time to time, when I actually thought about it. The rest of the time I was rubbing my hands together with glee at the world of availability that was suddenly there. All those bands I’d always meant to get round to, suddenly there as easily as typing a band name and ‘discography’ into a torrent search engine. I could listen to the entire Pink Floyd catalogue and realise how little of it was worth bothering with.
In the meantime, my life was changing. I got older, had kids, took on responsibilities and entered a recession, all at the same time. (Top Tip: Don’t do that.) The idea of ‘disposable income’ became a distant memory, and I suddenly realised why all of our parents got locked into the trap of stagnating with the music of their own youth. Our mums and dads got locked into dad rock or northern soul or disco or whatever the hell it was, not out of a sudden dearth of desire but because at a certain point the pursuit of the zeitgeist is just too expensive, too difficult. You lose the playground scene of trading tapes, you lose the college radio station playing you new things, and the stuff that makes it onto the radio is just not aimed at you anymore. Then you’re that guy, air guitaring to an AC/DC song at a wedding because thank fuck you actually recognise a song.
Now, removing the cost factor, I could avoid the oblivion of ‘driving rock’ compilations and carry on being just as involved with the scene that I love as I always was. Add in ‘that there internet’ as a discovery tool and it’s a hell of a lot easier to keep up with what’s going on, and more importantly, find the specific weird stuff that fits your taste or drives it into new directions. But still there was that nagging sensation, the idea that I’m giving nothing at all back to the bands who are giving me so much. The catch 22 is that if I want to do that, I have to give up altogether. I can’t feed a music addiction and two kids at the same time, and I should probably keep feeding the latter if given the choice.
Enter Spotify. Sure it might not be the best way of getting money back to the bands, but it’s legal, and it’s affordable. So I sign up, and find that not only is it affordable and handy from an easing my conscience perspective, it is also fucking brilliant. Let’s go through the pros, shall we?
- Sound quality: If you want to go completely anal on me, I’m sure you can insist that the music quality on Spotify is far inferior to that of FLAC, or vinyl, but I’m a middle aged man who has been to see Will Haven enough times to have lost most of the sonic frequencies that I might need to actually give a shit. It sounds fine to me.
- Searchability: Even torrents have nothing on this. Every artist has a profile page, with available albums in chronological order, singles underneath, and anything else underneath that. Most bands also have a link to a wiki article about the band, and then a page of related artists that can actually be pretty accurate at times, especially for more genre bands.
- Playlists: Everything runs off playlists, which takes a bit of getting used to. Well about five minutes. Create playlists of any length you want, on any theme you want, and until you shake them up that’s the music collection you are carrying around with you. Or, you can subscribe to your friends playlists, copy and paste them, generate them with apps, or pretty much any variety of the lot.
- Apps: From apps like Lazify which can generate playlists based on one song, to the Pitchfork app which links new releases to their album reviews (and tends to be a fairly exhaustive list of decent new releases) then you have hundreds of ways of generating new stuff to listen to.
- Playback: The desktop app is a bit glitchy but works pretty well, but the mobile app (at least the iphone version) is top notch. Sync your playlists over wi-fi for listening on the move, or access the whole Spotify database via wi-fi with zero quality loss. Synched playlists take up a hell of a lot less room on your device than Mp3s do as well.
- Availability: Here is the really good bit. Yes, there are gaps, but you will never, ever, run out of things to listen to, and all of a sudden there are no limits on the scope of your tastes. Chances are that if you are a metal fan, you are also into a pretty wide variety of music. Jazz, soul, classical, pop, goth, industrial, death, grind, indie, grunge, hip hop, it’s all here. Case in point, one of our esteemed staff recommended me a hip hop collective called Doomtree. In the old days they might have made a tape of the three albums they had, and I might go and buy one or two of their albums. On Spotify I created a playlist with all twenty plus albums, then got recommendations for another ten acts off the back of them.
- It costs £10 a month, and that’s it.
Let’s go through the cons:
- Artists make a pittance.
- It doesn’t have all the Neurosis albums on it.
This isn’t meant to be a love letter to Spotify, although I’m suddenly aware that I’ve spent over 1000 words giving a blow job to a corporate entity on my independently minded punk-as-fuck music webzine. There’s a reason why Spotify is doing so well, and that is because bloody good for its end users. Artists can walk away from it if they feel it’s not good value for them, that’s a perfectly understandable response, but the truth is it also means I’m not going to listen to them as much. Since I’m not going to be giving them any money then I suppose they don’t really care all that much, but if they’re left on the outside looking in when everyone’s on-board the stream train, they might find themselves regretting their choice.
As for the argument that people won’t make music unless it pays, I call bullshit. People make art because they are driven to do it. People create because they need to. People form bands for a hundred different reasons, and money is only one of them. We’ve been running this website now for nearly four years and have been paid precisely zero money for our efforts, but we persist. Why? Because we’re stupid, but that’s beside the point. We do it because we want to, because we think we have something worth saying, and the idea that that spirit is going to dry up because there’s no commerce in it any more is just ridiculous. Artists of all types are going to have to adjust to the new reality because it is not going to adjust to suit them.
They are not the drivers of this market (and they never were). The end users are, and the industry are going to have to find a way to keep up. At least musicians have the options of live music and merchandising to fall back on, think of the struggling authors entering a marketplace flooded with cheap or free digital content. What are they going to do, sell t-shirts? Go on tour?
Those in the music industry are obviously going to crow about the difficulties they find themselves in, and I do feel for them. As a writer looking at a world where nobody is willing to pay writers any more, I sympathise entirely, but rather than fight the oncoming storm, how about you make a raincatcher? If artists don’t like the payments they’re getting, they need to find a way to make more.
60% of my subscription fee goes to artist payments, but that gets spread so thinly amongst the non-paying users that the artists I actually listen to don’t get very much. This is patently unfair, my repeated listening of the new All Pigs Must Die album somehow conversely subsidising all the idiotic children listening to Robin ‘I’m so rapey’ Thicke on free accounts isn’t ideal. If you are listening, Spotify, please note that as a paying customer I would like you to pay the artists I listen to a bit more. Maybe you could pay on some kind of misogyny meter, so we don’t have to pay him anything?
If you’re looking for a conclusion to this rant, some idea of how to solve everything in one easy package, then obviously I’ve promised more than I can deliver. This is just a stream of consciousness belch that I’ve uploaded for the hell of it. But the stigmatisation of streaming services smacks of a desire to deride those who choose to use them as not caring enough about the artists. I do care about the artists, which is why I use these services in the first place. I just don’t care whether or not they get to be rich off the back of it.