Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek in Stockholm, Sweden. He has voiced disappointment that Taylor Swift pulled her music off the popular music streaming service, denying claims that it’s making money “on the backs of artists.” © AP photo by Janerik Henriksson.
The other night, I ended my workday finishing up a story about Jessica Lea Mayfield’s scheduled gig at Cosmic Charlie’s. Filling out the “If You Go” box on the story, I entered, “Opener: Bombadil.”
Hmmm. “What is this Bombadil?” I wondered. That question stayed with me as I got on the elevator to leave, so I got out my phone, hopped on Spotify, entered Bombadil and sampled the North Carolina band on my drive home.
This is one of the beauties of the mobile Internet age. Back in my days of recreational concert-going, if I wanted to sample the opening act, I had to go down to the record store, see if they had the band’s music and then shell out something in the neighborhood of $10. And I had to be really interested to do that.
Now, for $10 a month, I have a vast music library at my disposal. I can listen to almost anything I want and download onto my phone stuff I want full-time access to.
Except Taylor Swift.
Well, Taylor and a few other bands that have chosen for various reasons to sit out Internet streaming. There’s no AC/DC on Spotify, or other streaming services. No Beatles. Until recently, there was no Led Zeppelin. Garth Brooks isn’t there, and Jason Aldean just yanked his latest album off Spotify, which is the most prominent of numerous streaming services. Two others are Rhapsody and Pandora.
The move by Swift and her label was to make a point about what they think are small payouts by Spotify to host her music on their site.
Scott Borchetta, the CEO of Swift’s record label, Big Machine Records, told Time magazine, ““Don’t forget, this is for the most successful artist in music today. What about the rest of the artists out there struggling to make a career?”
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has responded to contentions by Swift and others that streaming and file-sharing services have cut into album sales. Ek said he co-founded Spotify to help protect artists against piracy, which pays artists nothing, whereas Spotify was set to pay artists more than $6 billion this year. His contention is that Spotify is building a new platform for music that will be profitable for artists, and that Swift seems to be advocating returning music distribution back to 1989, (the title of her new album, which is not on Spotify).
That all caused me to wonder, because we have recently written about several Lexington-area bands, most of whom have their music on Spotify, along with top artists Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Drake and Swift’s buddy, Ed Sheeran. How did they view Spotify and its impact on their livelihoods as musicians?
All the Little Pieces, from left: Rhyan Sprague (singer, keyboards, guitar, songwriter), Thomas Suggs (guitar), Billy P. Thomas (bass) and Chris Jones (drummer). The Lexington-based band All the Little Pieces released its new album, Broken Little Soul, Nov. 1. Photo by Rich Copley | Staff
Julian Karpinski, who helps manage All the Little Pieces, fronted by his stepdaughter Rhyan Sprague, says, “If someone finds ATLP on Spotify, then that helps us more than if we hold out to make a sale on iTunes. And as outdated as it sounds, most of ATLP’s CD sales are of the actual disc at shows. People go to see a band and they like to grab that CD. We hardly ever sell a download card at a show. People either purchase the download online, or buy the disc at the show. Not sure that a band at this level is hurt by Spotify. Looking at our oline sales of music, we see more transactions for Spotify than any other form of distribution.”
Kim Smith, Joshua Wright, Severn Edmonson and Seth Murphy are Bear Medicine. The Lexington-based band released its debut full-length album, The Moon Has Been All My Life, in October. Photo by Rich Copley | Staff
Seth Murphy, bassist and cellist of Lexington’s Bear Medicine, says that streaming services such as Spotify are not how he would like fans to engage with the group’s new album, The Moon Has Been All My Life. He would prefer that they get the CD or record and experience it uninterrupted (free versions of Spotify and other services drop in ads every few songs). But he also understands the need for exposure.
“If it helps point them in our direction, then mission accomplished,” Murphy says. “If they enjoy the music and connect to what is happening, I believe that people who come into contact with our album will choose to purchase the album, forgoing distractions inherent in this new age of streaming media.
“Supply and demand work the same in the music business as in any other business. Once an artist reaches a level of fame where their music is accessible everywhere, the demand to posses their album starts to hold less value. In order to best connect with these fans, artists pull their music from streaming sources like Spotify and YouTube and make purchasing albums the only option.”
Clearly, there are a lot of sliding scales in this discussion. For All the Little Pieces and Bear Medicine, there could be clear advantages to being on an international platform like Spotify, in which people who probably don’t have a chance to buy their record at a gig can hear your music, even if they don’t make much from the plays. But as their star rises, does the same platform become a detriment if people continue to listen and download at $10 a month for the whole service rather than buying a physical copy or paying for a download? Can they make that up at the box office, as we hear many artists do today, so that the $100-plus concert ticket is becoming the norm?
Swift’s representatives have claimed that other artists also want to leave Spotify, which the service doesn’t want to happen because it would devalue the brand. Since subscribing, part of my routine on Tuesdays has been to check out the new releases and listen to the latest tunes. That’s cool if I am confident that most artists I want to hear are there. I will buy some of the albums if I decide that I really want to own them. A music-service download is not owning, as Swift’s move proves: If you had downloaded her previous records on Spotify, you no longer have them. I still have the first records and CDs I bought in the 1970s and ’80s.
If the service is suddenly a collection of oldies and “Who’s that?” artists, Spotify and other streaming services will lose their value. I’m not paying $10 a month to hear Uncle Dan’s Accordion Band cover Shake It Off.
I have seen some possible solutions in the past. Swift herself did not post her Red album on Spotify or other services until a while after it came out. So people who were dying to hear the new music did have to pay. And that makes sense for an artist at that level. When I used the legal, subscription version of Napster, which was eventually bought by Rhapsody, many artists allowed only streaming, and you had to buy the album to take it with you on a device or burn it to a disc.
It seems there could be happy mediums to make the streaming services valuable while still getting artists fair market value for their music. And that, as a music lover and consumer, is what I want. Certainly, I don’t want to lose the world where I can dial up a band that interests me while standing at the elevator. But music is a product of work. It is valuable, and the artists deserve to be paid, whether they’re Taylor Swift or your favorite local hopeful.