Jul 31, 2020

Daniel Ek, the CEO and founder of Spotify, recently gave an interview with Music Ally. It has caused quite a stir in the independent music community. I wanted to step the conversation off Twitter and comment on his statements about Spotify and the realities of being a musician in this modern age.

(Daniel Ek is in bold)

"It's quite interesting that while the overall pie is growing, and more and more people can partake in that pie, we tend to focus on a very limited set of artists," 

The “overall pie” of musicians is growing with music that Spotify makes itself. Their playlists are littered with outsourced music made by Spotify for Spotify in order for Spotify to game their own system and make money from high-volume playlist streams that would otherwise go to “actual” artists.

"Even today on our marketplace, there's literally millions and millions of artists. What tends to be reported are the people that are unhappy, but we very rarely see anyone who's talking about… In the entire existence [of Spotify] I don't think I've ever seen a single artist saying 'I'm happy with all the money I'm getting from streaming.'"

Maybe many artists don’t complain because they are told they need to pander to Spotify in order to gain access to new fans or exposure? Maybe they’re being forced to give Spotify exclusive material solely for the chance that they will get put on popular playlists? Maybe the overwhelming landscape-change has forced artists to rely on the pittance that they get from streaming even though they know they deserve something better? Maybe it’s in their best interest not to complain about the very system they rely on in order to be heard?

Would I need to be eliciting financial support from these very patrons because Spotify was working for me?

"But unequivocally, from the data, there are more and more artists that are able to live off streaming income in itself.”

Really? Because as a musician I have not met a single peer that is satisfied with the income they get from streaming. In fact, the only ones who could potentially live off the income are the ones who are either already very successful, on a major label, or are making music that is rewarded by Spotify’s algorithm. It’s no surprise that certain music does better with streaming -- anything that can be put on a “chill out” playlist, that’s easy enough to listen to, thrown on in the background while you’re cooking… but that music isn’t music as much as it’s muzak. The artists that are attempting to create something new, different, or deeper than what is required to make it onto one of those playlists… the real culture creators cannot survive. Because the system isn’t made for them. Spotify even has a special metadata set for "valance" - in that, they rate the happiness of a song and this helps drive what playlists it would go on. Which means, if you're not making music that makes people feel happy, good luck getting heard.

"There is a narrative fallacy here, combined with the fact that, obviously, some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can't record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough”

Again, it seems as though Daniel Ek has never made music or endeavored any artistic practice whatsoever. The pressure to have to put out an album every six months is absolutely absurd, unless you’re one of the few successful artists who can outsource most of the labor. But it is a fallacy that Taylor Swift made her new album Folklore on her own in a home studio with no other musicians or audio personnel, as most musicians stuck in that “overall pie” do. Daniel Ek’s claim that music is more egalitarian than ever is a myth. We are not all given the same resources. We are not all given the same exposure. We are not all given the same support. So why does Daniel think Spotify has democratized music as much as he thinks he has? He’s refusing to look at the innate capitalist power structures that lead some artists to succeed while others fail. The cream doesn’t rise; the money does. Those with connections to Spotify through major label payola, or large existing fanbases get the exposure. And that exposure gets streams. And streams get money. But these artists, they already had the money. They’re the only ones who have the agency to create under these stringent expectations and timelines.

"The artists today that are making it realize that it's about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans."

This model works for Spotify and Daniel Ek, because Spotify requires the labor of artists to generate their content. It is not in their interest to give artists a break, because we’re the ones that are driving the entire system. Without new content, there’s no new traffic. In Daniel’s world, it is a numbers game. The more artists the better. The more songs the better. The more content, the more profit. But we cannot ignore the consequences of a market saturated with shitty music. ...Or the subtext of why Spotify is moving towards podcasts and away from music. Music is inherently an art form that requires space and time; time to make and time to listen. It’s not like a podcast, which exists under an entirely different scope and timetable. 

"I feel, really, that the ones that aren't doing well in streaming are predominantly people who want to release music the way it used to be released." 

By this, he’s saying that musicians need to look at themselves less as artists and more as content creators. We have no muse to serve but the marketplace, and without adhering to the rapid heart rate that is Spotify’s demand for new food for their algorithm, our careers are bound to perish. His lack of awareness about what it takes to write and create music is sort of strange given he’s the founder of a music streaming platform. You’d think somewhere in there would be a person who is a fan of the arts, and thus sensitive to the realities of what it means to make art.

“As you very well know, a lot of the income today that artists are getting [pre-Covid-19] is from touring and live performances. A lot of artists are struggling because of that.”

Interesting that Daniel is cognizant enough to see the impact that touring has on an artist’s financial stability today. I’d like to ask Daniel why is it that touring has become the backbone of a musician’s income? It can’t possibly be because he’s created a platform that has exploited the work of artists and not properly compensated them, so they’re forced to slog it out on the road 10 months a year. Don’t forget, we’re also supposed to be putting out two records a year on his schedule. 

It is becoming ever more clear that Spotify is not a place for artists or musicians, but for content creators intent on dumping their incessant stream of product into a saturated market for the algorithm to chew up and spit out. In my meager opinion, nothing is worth listening to under those standards.

Recommended follow up:

Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon’s podcast Interdependence 

Liz Pelly’s journalism on Spotify and streaming.

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