On Tuesday, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, a group of music workers ranging from musicians to road crew, unveiled a new "Justice at Spotify" campaign advocating for radical changes to the world's largest music streaming platform.
"Spotify is the most dominant platform on the music streaming market," the petition reads. "The company behind the streaming platform continues to accrue value, yet music workers everywhere see little more than pennies in compensation for the work they make.
To that end, the campaign—which has already been signed by 10,500 artists—is calling on Spotify to "deliver increased royalty payments, transparency in their practices, and to stop fighting artists."
Spotify did not immediately return Motherboard’s request for comment.
The demands include per-stream royalty rates of at least one cent, a user-centric payment model, making all contracts with major labels public, revealing and ending any arrangements that “resemble payola” (pay-to-play), the crediting of all labor behind recordings, and an end to legal battles "intended to further impoverish artists."
According to UMAW, the average streaming royalty sits at $.0038 per stream, meaning it would take about 263 streams to earn a dollar, 786 streams for a cup of coffee, 283,684 streams to pay the median U.S. rent ($1,078), and 657,895 monthly streams to hit $15 an hour.
"Many claim that such wages are not compatible with Spotify's current economic system,” the UMAW platform states. “Our demand is that this model be adjusted so that artists can be paid fairly. If Spotify's model can't pay artists fairly, it shouldn't exist."
Currently, Spotify pays artists through a pro-rata system where money generated from users is put into a pool, then divided up based on an artist's share of streams. A 2017 study commissioned by the Finnish Music Publishers Association analyzed Spotify premium user data in Finland and found that while the pro-rata system allows the top 0.4 percent of artists to get 10 percent of all the revenue, a “user-centric” (where user’s payment goes directly to the artists they stream) model would reduce their share to 5.6 percent.
This is why UMAW’s demands include doing more to end arrangements that allow “record labels, distributors, and management companies” to arrange “payments, playlist placements, and more.” Spotify insists placement on official playlists cannot be bought and that third parties selling playlist placement are doing so against the platform’s terms of service. Despite this, an in-depth investigation by the Daily Dot in August revealed a booming black market for playlist placement on Spotify.
Spotify’s Marquee advertising initiative has been accused of verging on pay-for-play. Documents obtained by Rolling Stone in 2019 revealed that the program allows labels to purchase pop-up ads that prompt users to listen to a specific artist or their work. Everytime a user clicks one of those ads, the label hands over 55 cents to Spotify. In its pitch deck, the platform advises artists (or labels) "to spend at least $5,000" and that this should "bring more than 9,000 potential listeners over a seven-day period."
"Spotify encourages labels and management companies to pay for plays on the platform. In many cases, the artists don’t even know this is happening,” the UMAW’s demands state. “The practice amounts to payola, and it is unacceptable and must be stopped."
The issue of transparency, UMAW maintains, also prevents artists from understanding how the platform works even though it runs on their labor. Spotify, currently worth north of $51 billion, did not simply accrue that wealth through premium subscriptions but also "advertising, capital investment, data collection.”
The UMAW’s focus on transparency is not just limited to how Spotify gets its money, but also documenting whose labor is involved in making a recording. The collective wants Spotify to implement full credits for every recording on its mobile and desktop platforms, as well as a search option to allow "every musician, producer, audio engineer, mastering engineer, and all others involved in the work" to be recognized for their labor.
The last plank simply calls for an end to lawsuits that "further impoverish artists." The UMAW accuses Spotify of “continu[ing] to fight in court to lower royalty rates for songwriters" and wants the company to pledge "not to fight artists, songwriters, and other music workers” going forward when royalty rates for streaming go up.
The UMAW did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.