It’s quite clear that if you can’t earn a living from Spotify, artists won’t bother making records. They’ll all just make podcasts, instead. But then, not everyone would want to do that. In the second part of our three-part feature, we talk to Steve Albini and MIRI on why artists are removing their music from Spotify.

Last month, following Skee Mask and Illian Tape’s decision to take their music off Spotify, we spoke to several artists who have also removed their music from the streaming platform too. In the intervening few weeks, musicians Neil Young, Jon Mitchell and Graham Nash have announced that they were removing their music too, in protest at Spotify’s platforming of covid misinformation by Joe Rogan’s podcast The Joe Rogan Experience.

Meanwhile US singer-songwriter India.Arie is also removing her music from Spotify because of her concerns with Rogan’s recent comments on race and house producer Mr V has also chosen to take his music off the platform.

The debate around Spotify has generally been around their royalty system which many artists consider way too low. Likewise, their pro-rata royalty system comes in for plenty of criticism, particularly when a user-centric model – where all of your Spotify fees go only to artists that you’ve actually streamed, seems at least at face value to be a much fairer model. Artists leaving Spotify because of concerns over covid misinformation or far-right content is a new development.

We spoke to two more artists and producers about why artists might choose to remove their music from the platform.

Steve Albini

Steve Albini is a US musician, record producer and audio engineer who over the course of a long career has worked with artists like Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey and Mogwai. Albini remains “agnostic” about streaming, doesn’t have a streaming subscription and is sympathetic to acts who might want to move away from Spotify.

What are your criticisms of Spotify and/or streaming generally?

In principle, streaming is just a kind of radio and I have no problem with it. I have a bit of a problem with the entire concept of intellectual property because as any poker player knows, a rule creates an angle to shoot exploiting that rule, as we see playing out here.

Specifically, Spotify granted major labels equity (part ownership) in exchange for bulk licenses to their catalogues. These licenses and the associated equity have never been subject to review or auditing, and the arrangements were made without consultation or consideration of the bands whose material was being streamed.

Given the paltry payments credited to the bands and the profitable years posted by the labels, it stands to reason that this arrangement is fundamentally unfair to the bands, but proving that in the intentional absence of any information would be a difficult forensic task.

As it is now, all the money flows from Spotify to the labels with a comically tiny amount credited to the bands whose music is the entire basis for the business.

Steve Albini

What’s the alternative?

The labels should pay the bands fairly. If they won’t do so voluntarily, then the governmental trade and communications oversight bodies, quasi-governmental PRS agencies, and affected bands as a class should force them to by bringing action against Spotify and affiliated labels.

This is squarely within the purview of governmental oversight in every territory where Spotify is active. Doing that will be difficult and expensive, so it’s not going to happen quickly and it may not ever happen.

The exploitation of the masters on Spotify entails no cost to the labels, and they profit to the exact extent that Spotify does, being owners.

If the labels apportioned the majority of the dividend and rights payments they receive from Spotify to the bands, either on a per-play basis or pro-rata as proportional to their streams, then the bands would make money, the labels would make money and Spotify would make money.

As it is now, all the money flows from Spotify to the labels with a comically tiny amount credited to the bands whose music is the entire basis for the business.

This isn’t going to happen. The labels and Spotify will need to be forced in order for anything to change, so the best possible option is to use services other than Spotify, deny them your subscription or attention, and make their share price tank. It’s happening to a small degree, but I’m not optimistic about it.

Steve Albini
Photo by Jayden Ostwald

The other streaming services all have their problems as well, so it’s not like there is an ethical choice available readily. Buying music directly from the bands is always the best, most efficient way of getting it, and Bandcamp, another music service, regularly has special days where they forfeit their fees, meaning that all the money goes to the bands.

This kind of bottom-up change places the responsibility on the consumer, something that rarely works in a market predicated on convenience, but it’s the only means of externally applying pressure at the moment.

I should say that I don’t fault the bands who have their music on Spotify by choice. It’s one of the few places outside of record stores where recorded music can earn anything at all, and for bands who deal directly with Spotify or have more generous, honest relationships with independent labels not part of the ownership trust, then the payments from Spotify, though meagre per-play, can add up to a viable income stream. Nobody’s getting rich, but it could pay for the groceries.

At the moment, I’m sympathetic to bands who want to disassociate from Spotify, either in protest over the payment scheme or their indulgent underwriting of Joe Rogan, a right-wing anti-vax mouthpiece with a popular and destructive podcast, but the bands I’ve been in haven’t yet had the conversations to decide if we want to pull our music.

MIRI

MIRI is a DIY singer-songwriter and musician who is removing her music from Spotify. 

Why did you remove your music from Spotify?

I started removing my catalogue from Spotify when it was announced that CEO Daniel Ek invested €100 million into the defence start-up, Helsing. This is money he’s made from music creators. He could have put money into helping musicians who’ve struggled during the pandemic or invested his time into making sure that creators are getting paid fairly. Instead, he chose something that’s the complete opposite of what music creators stand for. A company that Tim Arnold wrote in his Dec 2021 article “can profit from war”. I’m in the process of taking the rest of my solo work down. 

Why does Spotify get so much criticism when YouTube’s royalty rates are much lower? 

For me it’s the blatant disconnect Daniel Ek seems to have for music creators. He also said musicians should make more music to ensure they make sufficient earnings on the streaming platform. This simply isn’t true and let’s not forget we’ve been dealing with a pandemic.

Income from live performances has been sporadic and non-existent for some. In the UK energy bills, National Insurance, food prices and council tax is going up, yet he’s expecting us to have the finances and mental headspace to continually create and release music whilst he’s sitting comfortably profiting from it.

Miri

Are you considering taking your music off YouTube too? 

For any artist, especially independent artists and bands like me these big platforms play a crucial part in helping us reach out to a larger audience which is why making the choice to take all my work down from these sites would be a hard decision to make. Having my music up on YouTube has helped me increase my fanbase and promote my music. It’s also led to work.

However, I only just discovered that Google [who own YouTube] have minority stakes in companies supplying military surveillance tools. I need to do further reading on this but I feel as an artist these companies have us in checkmate.

Miri
Photo by Michaela Jay

What’s the alternative?

I have my music up on other sites including Bandcamp and two ethical streaming platforms called Sonstream and Resonate. I discovered Sonstream during the first UK lockdown and spoke to The Guardian about it last January.

Signing up to Sonstream was when I first realised I could be earning money fairly from streaming. I remember the first week I received £44.30 for 1,772 streams on one song. For Spotify I would have earned under £5 and £0 on other major platforms. 

How do you see this situation between artists/labels and Spotify developing?

Major labels have a huge part to play and will need to be prepared for change. I’m continuing to follow the #BrokenRecord campaign founded by Tom Gray. It’s encouraging to see people in the music industry working hard to create fair pay for creators.

We have to keep making noise. It’s important for music lovers & supporters to be aware of what’s going on too. The more I’ve shared on my socials about this topic the more I’ve had fans and friends reach out to me to say they had no idea how Spotify and other streaming sites were operating. 

We published Part 1 of this feature last month. In part three, coming next month we will look into artists, labels and publishers who are making Spotify work for them.

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Author Harold Heath
15th February, 2022

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