Rich people have spent 2020 proving they are good at bad takes, whether that’s JK Rowling devoting herself to TERFdome, or Elon Musk announcing that “pronouns suck”. The latest of these is billionaire Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek, who shared lots of questionable thoughts about the future of music, streaming and sustainability in a recent interview with Music Ally.
Highlights include Ek denying that Spotify pays insufficient royalties to artists (despite its low payout model being criticised for years), blaming it on a “narrative fallacy”. Instead, Ek pointed the finger back at artists, essentially blaming musicians for not making enough money from their own music.
“Some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape,” Ek prophesied. “You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that's going to be enough. The artists today that are making it realise 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.”
Unsurprisingly, music industry figures had a thing or two to say about Ek’s comments. Critic Steven Hyden tweeted: “Leech complains that host body is not producing enough blood,” while musician David Crosby (The Byrds, Crosby Stills & Nash) said: “You are an obnoxious greedy little shit Daniel Ek.”
Clearly, Ek’s vision for the music industry’s future hasn’t gone down well, but should musicians embrace their new roles as content creators in Ek’s “future landscape”?
British alt-pop artist Shura says that in some respects, Ek is right. “He’s not wrong that people will struggle if all they do is release a record every three years, as I did,” she says. “I didn’t really release music between my first and second record and it was more difficult than if I’d kept releasing music. It wasn’t impossible, but it’s definitely a bigger mountain to climb. We do need to work more, but that’s not going to be possible for a lot of people. The system that Daniel Ek is talking about can work, but it can only work for a small group of artists. So he’s got a point, it’s just that his point sucks.”
Spotify pays artists approximately $0.00437 per stream (Tidal and iTunes pay a fraction more, Amazon Music a fraction less). This means that artists would need around 360,000 streams per month to earn minimum wage, assuming that they’re one of the few lucky enough to own their masters, and that this money goes directly into their pocket without being split multiple ways. In contrast, Spotify itself is valued at around $26.9 billion, with Ek’s personal wealth estimated to be $4 billion, according to Forbes.
But for most artists, it’s simply not financially viable to record and release a lot of music under the terms Ek is proposing. “Most people can’t afford to make and release music on their own,” explains Shura. “I couldn’t afford to make a record unless I was signed because I can’t make a record for free. I need investment, so I have to give away a percentage of my masters and that’s the case for most artists. To be able to own your masters, that’s a real privilege.”
In a recent post on Patreon responding to the Ek interview, singer-songwriter Zola Jesus writes that it’s not in Spotify’s interest to give artists a break. “We’re the ones that are driving the entire system. Without new content, there’s no new traffic,” she writes. “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.”
Getting a continuous flow of Rihanna albums sounds dreamy but the reality might be a tsunami of disposable music. Space between releases allows artists time to grow.
“Our songs come from our life experience, our activism, and responding to the world we live in. Having more time to write, perform and refine our music allows us to grow as humans alongside our music,” says Anya, of London queercore band Dream Nails. “If we did force ourselves to continuously record and release tracks like we’re on a dismal conveyor belt, trust us that those tunes would sound like a coop of unloved, antibiotic-fed factory farm chickens. Yes, we might be getting more streams, maybe even a little more money, but to what end?”
Maximo Park frontman Paul Smith dismisses the idea of putting out records for the sake of engagement, saying it “saps the life out of meaningful discourse.” Producer Jackknife Lee, who has worked his magic on releases from artists like The Killers and Taylor Swift, also compares Spotify to a storefront that just needs stock to put on its shelves. “They need content, and it needs to be cheap so therefore it needs to be mass produced. Quality doesn’t matter really, it’s reliability they’re looking for,” Lee theorises.
It’s no surprise that the timing of Ek’s comments, aired in the middle of a global pandemic, when many artists are struggling with loss of income, have been met with resentment. “You can’t just create on demand,” says Alcopop! Records label manager Jack Clothier. “There’s echoes of what was happening with COVID here, where chirpy folk popped up on the news every two minutes suggesting that this was a great time for creativity. Life doesn’t work like that. You can’t force creativity.”
Composer, founding member of the band Gomez and Director at PRS for Music, Tom Gray, founded the #BrokenRecord campaign to advocate for artists and help them understand exactly what they should be getting angry about. According to Gray, the real problem is that no one’s legislated against Big Tech, so they’ve developed a close platform that’s completely captured the market and can “hold everybody to ransom”.
Gray says that transparency is desperately needed about where the money is going, if not to the artists. He predicts that the inevitable saviour is likely to come in the form of government intervention. “What I’m saying to people at these types of companies is, ‘Look, unless you sort it out with us and sort it out sensibly and come to the table and do a deal you’re going to get regulated – governments are going to get wise to this and regulate the fuckers’.”
VICE News approached Spotify for comment but had not received a response at the time of publishing.
Streaming itself is not the enemy, the problem is the current system. Spotify has become an unaccountable, Orwellian black box. Instead, streaming services need to operate like cooperatively owned businesses. Spotify might be proud that 43,000 artists now make up their “top tier” (those artists accounting for the top 90 percent of streams), but as Rolling Stone reports, this would leave “98.6 percent of the world’s artists – i.e. 2,957,000 separate performers” operating outside of Spotify’s “top tier”.
If Spotify wants to achieve its mission statement of enabling a million artists to live off their work, it could consider paying them better. As Zola Jesus writes on Patreon, “If a system works for only some people, while actively subjugating or exploiting the rest, it is not actually working.”