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The Green New Deal: Where Spotify Stands, And Where Artists Wish It Would

Spotify CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek, photographed in Tokyo on Sept. 29, 2016 on the occasion of his company's Japanese debut.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Spotify CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek, photographed in Tokyo on Sept. 29, 2016 on the occasion of his company's Japanese debut.

If it weren't for the signs reading "Spotify," "Amazon," "Google" and "Pandora" sitting atop four empty chairs on a warm Wednesday in April, the scene onstage at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville would have looked like any writer's round. But this day wasn't about creating and sharing music, as is custom at these events, reveling in each other's catchy licks and smart lyrics — no one was happily drinking whiskey out of anything other than frustration. Instead, songwriters like Kenny Chesney producer Buddy Cannon and "Girl Crush" co-writer Liz Rose were gathered to hear about what they could do to push against these tech companies, whom they feel are aggressively lobbying in search of profit over songwriters' financial well being. In that room in Nashville, Spotify seemed to be the biggest offender — after all, it's the largest player in the streaming game, valued at over $26 billion dollars and with 217 million monthly users. But Spotify didn't show, leaving only an empty chair and a sign bearing its logo.

Assembled by the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA), with the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), that April town hall was in response to an unfulfilled promise from Spotify itself to host a meeting intended to explain its motivations for appealing a 2018 ruling (finalized earlier this year) mandating a sharp increase in royalty rates for songwriters' compositions that would be phased in from 2018 to 2022. For many artists and creators, Spotify's appeal felt particularly egregious, coming from a company that has consistently labeled itself as "artist-friendly" through programs like Secret Genius, which was meant to "celebrate" those same songwriters with awards and workshops.

A few months after that tech-free town hall, during CMA Fest, a much different version of Spotify hit Nashville, in the form of the now-annual Spotify House, which takes over Blake Shelton's Ole Red bar downtown for the duration of the June festival, which showcases both new, superstar and legacy country acts. Artists — from Tanya Tucker to Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus to up-and-comers like Rachel Wammack, Tenille Townes and Dillon Charmichael — took the stage to a captive audience, and many gave ample shout-outs to Spotify and the role the company has played in their career thus far. Traditionalist country trio Midland hosted a brunch session to tout their podcast – an important new space for Spotify – while others chatted about the importance of making their way onto a coveted playlist, and how it has let them reach vast new audiences. The contempt that lingered over the songwriter town hall was nowhere to be found. This was a celebration of all that Spotify could offer to both fledgling and established country careers.

Spotify in 2019 is very much of this dual identity, a company (still) struggling with its reputation amongst artists, but also one immensely useful to both those artists and their fans. Since its launch in 2008, especially following its U.S. launch three years later, Spotify has tried to balance ideas of what constitutes being artist-friendly while simultaneously functioning as a global digital brand, an unprecedented and as-yet-unparalleled platform to share their music.

Spotify is growing at a rapid pace, putting muscle into its podcasting business and betting big that this market will prove to be a major source of revenue down the line. The company seems to have realized that, in order to have a self-determined path, its future lies in audio it controls the rights to, or that it can secure for cheap. Podcasting is one of these vehicles; in February, Spotify announced the acquisition of two podcasting companies, Gimlet and Anchor, which Spotify Founder and CEO Daniel Ek wrote about in the company's blog, For the Record.

"Based on radio industry data, we believe it is a safe assumption that, over time, more than 20% of all Spotify listening will be non-music content," he wrote of the purchases, which were reported to have cost $340 million. "This means the potential to grow much faster with more original programming — and to differentiate Spotify by playing to what makes us unique — all with the goal of becoming the world's number one audio platform."

Shrewd business moves like this aren't the only reasons for Spotify's leading position — though, of course, they've been a major part of the equation. Equity deals with the major labels instilled confidence in Spotify early on (remember, these are companies that at the time had spent a decade watching their revenues recede, at least in part because of their deals with another notable tech company). Spotify has also managed to make itself an ally in almost every album cycle, providing a highly valued platform, shaping entire careers and providing an infrastructure smaller labels or artists might not have access to otherwise.

"Programs like fan first campaigns, Spotify singles, spotlights, emails to followers, release radar playlists, canvas vids, and in particular ticket presales would be financially prohibitive for small labels, if not provided by Spotify," says Jody Whelan, of John Prine's Oh Boy Records. Those are capabilities that services like SoundCloud just haven't been able to match.

Spotify is often the center of discussions around streaming (frequently synonymous with it, in fact) and takes the bulk of the heat both because it is distinctly a music product — unlike with Amazon and Google, where you can both listen to a record but also buy some antifreeze or find movie times — and because of its high number of users compared to other streaming companies. For artists-rights activists, it gets the most attention simply because it's the most recognizable brand in the space. The visible target is the easiest one to hit.

Daniel Ek, the co-founder and CEO of Spotify, takes the Barclays Center stage on Aug. 9, 2018.
Monica Schipper / Getty Images for Spotify
Getty Images for Spotify
Daniel Ek, the co-founder and CEO of Spotify, takes the Barclays Center stage on Aug. 9, 2018.

But many of the company's biggest stumbles are of its own making. This year has brought a mess of public relations missteps for the company (which, frankly, is no stranger to public relations nightmares) – including its battle with songwriters, to a much-hyped launch in India that was fraught with roadblocks and delays, along with allegations of gender discrimination (which it has denied), not to mention the "hateful conduct" policy of 2018 and accusations that the company created fake artists to boost streams in 2017. In early April, songwriters from Secret Genius filed an open letter to Spotify to drop their appeal, a move that conjured up the day when Taylor Swift pulled her own music from the service ("Music is art, and art is important and rare," she wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "Valuable things should be paid for" — Swift's music is now back on Spotify, however).

"We know that you are not the only DSP appealing the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) rate determination," read the Secret Genius letter, signed by such top-tier writers as Shane McAnally, Teddy Geiger and Lori McKenna. "You are, however, the only provider that made us feel we were working to build a modern music industry together"

Earlier this month, Spotify encountered yet another misstep, with the release of an ad campaign that featured the slogan "Dance like no one is paying." From a company paying out fractions of a cent per stream, it felt like a major sting.

"When a company makes a lot of noise about championing artists, and those claims are rarely if ever reflected in the company's policies or practices, it's disappointing," says Kasey Anderson, an independent artist based in Portland, Ore. In the Spotify world, the artist – and particularly the songwriter – often finds themselves as the lowest rung on a very long and complicated pole. But as Dr. Joshua Shepperd, assistant professor of Media and Communication at The Catholic University of America argues, that's always been the point. It's a company in the music space, doing the business of music, but is, as he puts it, a cloud service, more similar to Dropbox than Sub Pop. They are "aggregating the aggregating," he says.

Indeed, Spotify was never really so much a music company as an Internet brand. "Spotify's business model never benefited all musicians in the same manner but rather appeared — and still appears — highly skewed toward major stars and record labels, establishing a winner-takes-all market familiar from the traditional media industries," goes an excerpt from the book Spotify Teardown, an investigation into the mechanisms of Spotify by a Swedish research team comprising Maria Eriksson, Anna Johansson, Rasmus Fleischer, Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau. The book argues that Spotify isn't a media company per se – and, like Dr. Shepperd, asserts that it's structurally much closer to a Facebook or Google, particularly in its digital business model. And looking around an event like the Spotify House, that assertion holds up.

Joe Jonas on a Spotify-branded carnival ride — part of a "Carnival of Happiness" the company threw for The Jonas Brothers on June 6, 2019 in New York.
Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images for Spotify
Getty Images for Spotify
Joe Jonas on a Spotify-branded carnival ride — part of a "Carnival of Happiness" the company threw for The Jonas Brothers on June 6, 2019 in New York.

"A distinction needs to be made between a digital music business and recorded music business," says Dr. Shepperd. "Spotify happens to be focused on music. But it's a digital business first, and not a studio or concert hall, and it brings in other limits and pressures and forces that have different policy influence. That's part of the disconnect between what they claim to be doing, and what they are actually doing. How do you qualify what Spotify actually has to deal with? Well, in their minds, they are responding to digital law [in cases like the CRB appeal]." Like any company, record labels included, Spotify is trying to turn a profit and minimize overhead.

Spotify has, however, been taking some steps to improve their standing with artists. This year they hired former Disturbing Tha Peace Records founder Chaku Zulu to head Artist and Talent Relations, who touted "growth, representation and support" when he signed on to the company back in April. But many artists and songwriters feel like it's a case of too little, too late.

"With so many things Spotify does, just because it 'seems' like a step in the right direction doesn't mean it is," says Anderson. "Theoretically, streaming platforms are a more democratic delivery service for listeners and artists alike, but we're not seeing that reflected in playlist placement, and we're certainly not seeing it reflected financially."

It has been a successful business plan for some of music's biggest names and companies, if no one else. For the Swifts, the Ed Sheerans and the Florida Georgia Line/Bebe Rexha's of this world, Spotify can mean career magic – if you are streaming songs by the hundreds of millions, there is good money to be made. For mainstream artists like Swift, that's pressure to be more global than ever. For those somewhere in between indie and mainstream, it can mean feeling like the music needs to be created with those specific playlists in mind. "The promise of a huge global audience only works if you are making art that works for a huge global audience," says Kevin Erickson of Future of Music.

It also leads to an almost existential question of what happens to music itself when it needs to appeal to as many people as possible. "The platform operates best for 'hit songs' in the major genres," says Wheelan. "Artists are rewarded for creating inoffensive music that can be added to playlists they are targeting. And while that may not be a huge departure from how the music business always worked, in an environment where there is no room for differential pricing, non-commercial or experimental artists suffer more."

In the land of Spotify playlists, it's all about working well in the mix — and, as with radio, familiar and generic songs are often key, as are atmospheric ones suitable for "background listening."

"I hear a lot of talk about what kind of songs work well for playlists, therefore what kind of songs to focus on writing," says singer-songwriter Michaela Anne. "And/or making acoustic versions of album songs with the intent to capitalize on playlist placement. At the end of the day, everyone is trying to survive and playlists seem to be the latest way to make the most money. But does that always translate to fans and building a whole career?"

Billie Eilish, photographed before a performance presented by Spotify on March 28, 2019 (the day before the release of her debut album) in Los Angeles.
Emma McIntyre / Getty Images for Spotify
Getty Images for Spotify
Billie Eilish, photographed before a performance presented by Spotify on March 28, 2019 (the day before the release of her debut album) in Los Angeles.

For artists like Anne, Spotify does have some benefits — but most come with caveats. "It feels like as an indie artist, we don't have much choice but to embrace Spotify," says Anne. "As a tool for listeners to discover new music, it is really awesome that people can happen upon new artists through playlists and discover pages. At the same time, it's fascinating to watch how the changing technology affects not only how we listen and consume music but how and why artists create music."

Those benefits are strong and distinct for independent labels like Oh Boy or Rounder Records. "The artist dashboard they've built could be improved, but as it stands now it offers incredible feedback on what songs are being consumed, where and by what demographic," says Wheelan. "For younger artists, that definitely helps with touring, and for an artist like John [Prine], it could point to what song we need to make a video for or send to radio. Basically creates a focus group for us."

For managers like Charlie Pierce, who handles country artist and Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley and British-born Americana singer-songwriter Yola, it's about seeing the bigger picture. "I think treating anybody in the business as a foe misses the opportunity to try and influence change in a positive way," she says. "They provide a platform for many artists that they otherwise might not have. Independent artists do see an income stream that benefits the development of their work. There are challenges with the platform including recognition for writers, and diversity in playlists, [but] we can't overcome those challenges by dismissing the weight of Spotify's position in the new world of streaming we find ourselves in."

Spotify doubled down on this position with Spotify for Artists, an analytics dashboard for artists and their teams to access real data from the service. It's been a useful means for many, but also stirred its own controversy when it shut down its upload program, which let indie artists upload their own music instead of needing to hire a digital distributor. Still, the metrics it provides are generally valued as a prized commodity, even with imperfections.

For most labels – and even artists – that usefulness ends up keeping them squarely in the "friends" category. "Friend, but a slightly dysfunctional friendship," says John Strohm, president of Rounder Records. "I was an early, full-throated advocate for subscription streaming as the way forward for the recorded music business, and it made a lot of people mad. So I feel vindicated, and my opinions haven't changed much, but are more nuanced, and there are new challenges that have come from the head-spinning growth. I'm glad as f*** Spotify has real competition in that space."

Competition – from Apple, Google, Amazon and other streaming platforms – is a good thing, argues Strohm, to help ensure innovation, especially as they "keep making tone-deaf moves that piss off artists and writers." Ek seems to welcome this competition himself. "Spotify has done well defining the landscape in their favor," says Dr. Shepperd. "Without trying to palpably own the entire market."

But the pressure from artists still lingers. Spotify still hasn't dropped its appeal to the CRB's ruling, and there's no indication that they will. And they're busily focusing on new avenues rather than refining the ones they already have, making investments in those podcasts and more personalized playlists. For a company dependent on people listening, they might have to start doing a little bit more themselves.

"Artist input is crucial," says Dr. Shepperd, "for tying what's essentially just a cloud aggregation service to the actual product that it's selling."

As Swift once wrote in that infamous op-ed," the music industry is not dying ... It's just coming alive." In that balance, Spotify might truly find its groove – adolescence is always awkward, after all.

Marissa R. Moss is a Nashville-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Billboard, Nashville Scene, The Fader, Pitchfork and other publications.

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Marissa R. Moss