Ah, Taylor Swift. Country darling, pop princess, equal parts avowed feminist and hopeless romantic. Oh, and she may or may not have just single-handedly called into question the future of the music industry.
The 24 year-old singer's decision to pull all her songs from web streaming service Spotify underscores the tensions belying the new direction of digital media. Her argument contended that Spotify does not adequately appreciate the value of music as an art form nor its artists, and that people should be willing to pay for her songs.
Spotify is a web streaming service that allows its listeners to "spot" and "identify" (hence the name) new music and to share it with friends via a partnership with Facebook. Creating an account is completely free of charge, though upgrades cost up to $120 per year. Sounds too good to be true, right?
Well, for many artists, it is. Though Spotify claims 70 percent of its revenue goes to record labels (or roughly $1 billion), record labels receive less than a cent for each play. And most of the money funneled to record labels doesn't go to the artist, either.
Take Taylor Swift, for instance. Though Spotify CEO Daniel Ek claims she was set to garner over $6 million from the service this year, Swift said her total for 2013 clocked shy of $500,000. And that's not even the worst of it - pop singer Lady Gaga earned a measly $167 for one million plays of her song "Poker Face" during a five-month period.
So, who's in the right in the Great Swift vs. Spotify feud of 2014? Well, according to the co-chairmen of Rhapsody, a music-streaming service comparable to Spotify, the answer is Team Taylor.
"We think that Spotify’s apparent demand, that all its content be available in both their premium and free tiers, is overly simplistic and will not break the music industry’s decade-plus-long decline. Instead, we believe in a much more comprehensive approach that (a) differentiates between free services like Spotify and paid services like Rhapsody, and (b) is built on concepts like windowing and other ways to deliver value to both consumers and artists," said Jason Epstein and Rob Glaser in a joint statement.
They argue that the business model exemplified by Spotify is "throwing the baby out along with the bath water:" in other words, undervaluing the artist in an effort to make music more accessible to the masses. The solution, they say, is simple: make 90 percent of all new music available only on premium subscriptions or purchase so that artists don't get bamboozled out of their share.
Though their argument is sound (they liken their proposition to the fact that people will continue to go to the movie theater even though they're available on-demand and on TV at a later date), I tend to take a bit more of a cynical view on human nature. Right now Spotify, in my opinion, appeals to people because its free and less morally reprehensible than file-sharing or other illegal practices. But once listeners start to feel a financial squeeze, they will abandon their moral qualms and revert to aforementioned illegal activities, which will prove detrimental to both artists and online streaming sites.
As for right now, I applaud Taylor Swift for standing up to the duplicitous tactics of Spotify, which is clearly not giving artists their money's worth. Little does Spotify know that it has made a formidable opponent, and that it won't be easy to "Shake It Off."
Epstein, J., & Glaser, R. (n.d.). Essay: Why Streaming (Done Right) Will Save the Music Business. Retrieved November 29, 2014, from http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/digital-and-mobile/6327433/essay-why-streaming-done-right-will-save-the-music