A couple of years ago I was helping out at an electropop night in London and got chatting with Rusty Egan, DJ and maestro behind 80s synthpop legends Visage. I mentioned that I wrote a blog about Spotify and he was perplexed. Not because he didn’t know what Spotify was – the music-streaming service had already started to enter the mainstream psyche – but he couldn’t see how someone could dedicate a blog to it.
“Well, there’s a lot of misconceptions and rumours about Spotify,” I started. “And most folk like us, who grew up with vinyl, don’t seem to ‘get’ it. It’s a harder sell if you’re used to owning music instead of renting it.”
Rusty looked at me quizzically.
“But what do you write about?” he asked. “Why do you think Spotify is so great?”
So this is what I told him:
Supporting the Artists
There was a story that broke at the end of 2009 about how Lady Gaga had only received a paltry £108 return from over a million streams of her single “Poker Face” on Spotify. This was reported with alarming frequency, and used to prove how much of a rip-off Spotify was for the artists. Many bands declared their disgust and intention to remove their music from the service ASAP. Here was “proof” that streaming music services were doomed to fail.
But some simple fact-checking showed that this figure was way off the mark.
The £108 Gaga figure was in fact only a fraction of the total payment to her label (it was to STIM, the Swedish collection society: payments are also paid to publishers and to the artist’s record company), and it was only for a short period of time in one country after Spotify had just launched.
Five years later, I still get this thrown at me as evidence that Spotify rips off struggling artists. I point out that it’s not as if before Spotify came along, record labels were there solely for the benefit of artists: of course not. Music is a business just like it’s always been. The men-in-suits have always taken a huge slice of the pie. The artist’s cut has always been small, way before Spotify came along. The difference is that now for the first time, artists have the chance to regain a bit of control, to re-direct some of the returns Spotify hands out. Indie bands can use Spotify as a platform to publish their music directly, without the need for a label or artist management.
So artists now potentially have a much larger cut of the total income than pre-Spotify. And if they don’t want to receive the endless trickle of cash from music streaming services, the “take my stuff off of Spotify” process is so easy it’s practically a single-click.
Spotify themselves are still a relatively young business that’s only just turned a profit in 2013 (in the UK at least). Despite impressive user stats, globally there’s still not enough people prepared to pay the monthly fee. But things are changing fast. According to the BPI, streaming music services generated £103m of revenues in the UK in 2013 (around 10% of overall UK recorded music revenues). Spotify say they’re now generating more revenue each month than iTunes, at least in Europe.
Spotify’s website for artists (www.spotifyartists.com/) claims that over 70% of their revenue goes straight back to rights holders, so it’s clear that some artists can and have made a killing from streaming services. Of course there’s a question of scale: rich bands get richer but smaller bands cannot hope to make a living from streaming services alone. For them, Spotify is more of a way to get their music heard, to entice potential fans who wouldn’t have bought a CD or a download to maybe come along to a gig instead.
The bottom line is this: to support an artist, you should go to their gigs and buy their CDs and merchandise and special-edition re-releases. But then when you get home, listen to the band on Spotify so that they continue to receive a little bit of cash each time you play one of their songs.
Comparing revenues for artists from streaming music services like Spotify with download “unit sale” models like iTunes just doesn’t make sense. That’s like comparing a TV show’s viewing figures with its DVD sales. A better comparison is with radio plays or YouTube hits. While these both currently exceed Spotify in terms of listener figures, the pay-out for a play on Spotify is far greater compared with both radio and YouTube.
The Collectors (Ownership vs. Rental)
Like any other middle-class middle-aged man, I like to collect things. With the march of time my boxes of vinyl have given way to bookcases full of CDs and DVDs, in turn succumbing to hard drives bulging with WAVs and FLACs and MP3s that I’d meticulously organise and tag and label.
When I discovered Spotify at the start of 2009, one of the first things I did was to take photos of my carefully organised CDs then use HTML to link up the images to Spotify. I used an “image map” to link each CD spine to the corresponding album on Spotify. I could then web-browse my collection “visually” in the by-genre organisation I’d created over the years. Despite a few gaps (no Beatles, no Rammstein etc.) it worked pretty well as a digital interface to my real-world-collection.
Then a few months later I sold most of my CDs, deleted all those MP3s and switched to the rental model of Spotify entirely.
And I’ve never looked back.
There’s a common argument against the music rental model that goes along the lines of: “What if I stop paying for Spotify, all those albums (playlists) I’ve collected will be lost! If I’d bought the CD instead I’d still have them.” This is true to a degree, but don’t forget that even if you move back to “free” Spotify, your playlists remain: they’re never deleted. Worrying about “lost” artefacts (i.e. the physical CD) is a vestigial angst that you’ll soon get over.
Despite my middle-agedness I’m still a rapacious consumer of new music, so Spotify’s tenner a month is saving me heaps. I do still buy CDs at gigs (see above), but mostly now I just swim in Spotify’s stream of music, with access all areas. Just like the television license required to view BBC content or a Netflix subscription, Spotify’s pay-to-access model provides vast choice to suit all tastes. For me, gone are the days of ripping CDs, backing up WAVs and tagging MP3s. What a waste of time all that was!
But even now I do still “own” one type of music-related digital artefact that’s very precious to me: my playlists.
The Playlist is the Mixtape
The modern version of a mixtape is the Spotify playlist. Just like a mixtape, a Spotify playlist is a form of expression that can display its own ingenuity and diversity, made for my-ears-only or sometimes for that one special person. Spotify lets me choose the songs in the mix and the song placement and the shareability: I can keep it to myself or I can share it with the entire world if I like.
I often spend days crafting the perfect playlist. I’ve made Spotify playlists that try to tell the story of my life (or a special weekend or a love affair); others that soundtrack my science-fiction stories, and others that spotlight new synthpop releases to my blog followers. My playlist “Music Inspired by the Movie Drive” has around 25,000 subscribers and every few days I get a random message from someone saying “Thanks for your playlists!” I’m no musician so this is perhaps the closest I’ll get to having “fans”. There’s a huge sense of satisfaction when one of my playlists goes viral, something I could never have imagined happening in the past with that boxful of C90s.
So the joy of a home-made mix has not been killed by the arrival of streaming music services: far from it.
Music of Quality and Distinction
You probably know someone like me, a guy who’s listened to too much music for too long. Who has tinnitus – a permanent ringing in the ears. Mine came on at a gig by the awesome band Broadcast at King Tut’s in Glasgow, 2001. I was standing right next to the speaker stack for the show’s duration, and it was a time when the band were going through their “experimental feedback” phase.
You live and learn.
But despite this aural handicap, I still like to spend a little bit extra on my audio gear and sneer down at the 128kbps-toting teens and their white lead earbuds. The limit of human hearing is 20kHz and I know I’m some way down from that, but I can still appreciate good audio quality nonetheless. So the first thing I do when I install Spotify is to ramp up the default Music Quality setting to “Extreme Quality.” This delivers music in an Ogg Vorbis(ish) format at better-than-320kbps MP3 compression, ripped from label masters with gapless playback and crossfade options.
For me that’s quality enough.
Soulseek, Kazaa, Suprnova, eDonkey, OiNK. The Pirate Bay. What all these shady download tools had in common was ease-of-use and convenience. When pirating an album was quicker and easier than buying it, that’s a huge temptation, especially when you’re strapped for cash. I know a heck of a lot of people who were tempted that way.
But then Spotify came along and changed the rules. With a peer-to-peer backbone (just like the Pirate Bay) and Swedish chops (just like the Pirate Bay), Spotify made it even easier to get your music: you search, you press play, you sit back and listen. Now there wasn’t even the need to wait for the download to finish (and sort and tag and add album art). The music was there instantly! This convenience trumped piracy: Spotify Free was a game-changer and people still downloading illegal MP3s are both wasting their time and living in the past.
Step One of Spotify’s gameplan was to shift the pirates to a controlled, legal system that gave something back to the artists. Not a lot at first of course, since it takes premium subscribers and their £10/month to grow Spotify’s royalty payments. And it’s a lot easier to shift mindsets from free-to-free compared with from free-to-paid.
Step Two i.e. getting users to pay a little bit for all that music is an ongoing goal that for all our sakes I hope succeeds. Because otherwise, for many it will be back to the Bay and all that clawed back revenue for the industry will have been lost again.
But really when it comes down to it, the most important thing for me is music availability. I want my music right here, right now.
For all intents and purposes, Spotify lets me access all the world’s music (except for AC/DC, Radiohead, a few others). Today they have 36 million tracks that I can stream instantly to my main hi-fi system, to my phone, my tablet, my car… my playlists are always with me and always available.
Most new albums arrive on Spotify on the day of release, and because I “follow” the bands I like, Spotify sends me a message whenever there’s a new release.
And if I do happen to get bored of the music, I can always trawl Spotify’s vast catalogue of audio drama, comedy & stand-up, language courses, self-help audiobooks, sound effect albums, classic speeches… all the audio I could want is always and instantly available to me through Spotify.
Fade to Grey
Music is one of the most important things in the world to me. It’s in my “Top 5 Things I Could Not Live Without” list and it’s probably not far behind air/food/water. I’ve lived long enough to see a fair few format changes, and so I’ve bought many favourite albums multiple times. But now I’ve finally left the mediums behind me: now it’s just about the music.
I told Rusty Egan that I’d bought some Visage albums on vinyl back in the day. He nodded and gave me a cursory smile.
I then told him that I’d added some Visage songs to my “Golden Hour of Synthpop” playlist on Spotify, a playlist that had a few hundred followers and growing.
His smile widened to reveal those pearly whites of his.
“Oh,” he said, “that’s pretty good. Thanks very much!”
I’m glad Rusty’s music is on Spotify. For me that means it’ll never fade away and is always just one click away.