The big appeal when it comes to streaming music is the idea of personal choice.
Well, that and the fact that streaming is basically free, and “investing” in a full album’s worth of songs from an artist you like will cost you roughly $10 for a digital download, or somewhere between $20 and $40 if you are a vinyl snob. (For vinyl snob, read “someone who cares about the way the music they listen to sounds.”)
The appeal of services like Spotify and rDio is obvious – you can listen to pretty much anything you want, any time you want, without paying much of anything. You can, however, cough up a small monthly fee for rDio and Spotify premium services, for example – one that will allow a “family plan” for unlimited streaming.
The majority of new releases are made available for streaming through these services on the day they hit the streets. You can “shop” for these new releases, pick what you like, add it to your virtual collection, and enjoy the added benefit of walking right by the virtual checkout counter without dropping a dime.
It feels like a win-win for the consumer, and if the artists are only getting $0.007 per play – that’s the average Spotify royalty rate – well, how is that your problem? The American consumer loves feeling like he or she is getting a good deal, even if someone else is paying for that good deal. The American consumer also likes to feel like he or she is exercising free choice when it comes to pretty much everything, including what music they listen to.
However, scrutiny of reality demands that these particular freedom-lovers be disabused of such a notion. “Free” is a relative term, after all.
To wit: Spotify has launched a new platform known as “Spotify Spotlight,” with a goal to push certain artists – through editorial and promotional support – based on the listening habits of Spotify users.
In December, Spotify launched a “Spotlight on 2014” playlist, featuring artists who already were trending on the service. The playlist was streamed by users in the area of 17 million times, and in the process, allowed Spotify to narrow its focus, based on which artists and songs were streamed most often. Now, Spotify will throw its muscle behind those artists – among them, alt-pop outfit Foster the People (already popular and not really in need of the help) and Danish singer/songwriter/Avicii collaborator Karen Marie Orsted, aka Mo.
The idea is that everyone will win. Spotify satisfies its customers, and the record labels enjoy their share of the royalties. (The 70 percent Spotify claims to pay out in royalty fees – based on the income generated through premium service subscribers and advertising revenue – goes directly to the record labels, who then pay out a fraction to the artists, unless the artist owns all of its own publishing, in which case the money goes directly to them). Plus the artist gets rammed down the throats of Spotify users, who will quite likely think they decided to like these artists based on personal volition.
“We’re using engagement metrics from the ‘Spotlight on 2014’ playlist to identify and then provide additional exposure for the standout artists,” said Spotify Head of Content Steve Savoca in a press release. “The next Imagine Dragons, Kendrick Lamar or Avicii is in our midst and we want to give our users a stake in their future success.”
Brrrrr. Is it getting cold in here, or is it just me?
Even if we push to the side the fact that Spotify and its peer services are doing serious damage to the ability of artists to earn a fair wage for their work, there is something crass and manipulative about the manner in which Spotify is using the listening habits of its subscribers as free focus group data in its quest to narrow down the pool of available music.
One possible outcome of this involves a scenario where, soon, it will be only the artists who are already doing well who will rise to the top of that pool.
In the old-model record business, this would be like a label pouring all of its promotional money into, say, Beyonce’s new release, while far more interesting, groundbreaking, and talented artists receive no promotional budget and watch their work wither on the vine.
Meanwhile, the majority of music consumers carry on, oblivious to the fact that their choices are made based on limited availability much more than free will. But it’s pretty much free anyway, so who cares, right? Right?!?
Perhaps Thom Yorke of Radiohead wasn’t so far off the mark last year, when he posted a tweet calling Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” Make no mistake. Spotify’s “Spotlight Artists” platform is not about offering any of us more in the way of choice.