Spotify: Champion of the Underground, or Vampire in Disguise?

It’s safe to say that Taylor Swift’s dramatic break-up with Spotify certainly isn’t a secret anymore. When the news broke, it broke like a tidal wave crashing through a dam, flooding the internet with furious controversy. Fans and critics alike found themselves standing opposed on the battle lines of a critical debate: is Spotify any good for musicians?

The answer to that question largely depends on just what kind of musicians we’re framing this question around. If we’re looking only at well-established, successful mainstream acts, then the answer seems a bit easier to answer. Take Taylor Swift, for instance, whose music, regardless of its presence on the behemoth streaming platform, is going to sell. And it’s going to sell in droves. Not only is Swift’s art going to sell in CD format, but it’s going to sell as live performance as well. It’s going to sell as merchandise, which is where the majority of money in the music business comes from. For Swift, then, this rebellious stance against the evils of penniless music streaming has a minimal effect on her standing.

If Swift’s motivation for pulling her albums from Spotify is meager compensation, and that certainly seems to be the case, then she and her like-minded peers may be missing the bigger picture at play. By adding your music to the online database, you’re extending the potential reach of your art, thanks in large part to Spotify’s “Related Artists” feature. Musicians who opt in to Spotify’s program are exercising another avenue of exposure, allowing for a greater reach to curious, interested listeners around the world. That reach, in turn, may translate to increased sales of concert tickets, t-shirts, posters and other merchandise. So, sure, the penniless payout per stream may be an irritant, but it’s one that some artists should reconsider. In an interview with Digital Spy, Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) added:

“Me personally? I don’t fucking care. That’s just me, because I’m playing two nights at Wembley next summer. I want people to hear our music, I don’t care if you pay $1 or fucking $20 for it, just listen to the fucking song. But I can understand how other people would object to that.”

This same principle of extended reach is even more critical for musicians who lack the commercial backing of Grammy-contenders and platinum sellers. Thousands of artists working in the underground can barely manage to put together a meager tour of five towns, let alone put together a new album. For these artists, the benefit of Spotify’s platform is even more critical. Sure, the profit-per-play won’t ease the woes of these obscure performers, but it will allow for the world at large to access their art more easily and, in turn, decide its value. When listeners find that art valuable, they’re likely going to invest in it – whether that investment comes in the form of kickstarter donations, digital music purchases, concert tickets or even free advertising via word-of-mouth.

This isn’t to suggest that underground artists stand to make sizable fortunes off the various sales that their increased exposure would provide. Unfortunately, these performers, more often than not, are forever stuck in a thankless game of monetary catch-up, where even the sale of merchandise can’t hope to make up the difference. The lucky few who do manage to break through to the other side often find the profits meager at best. Many of those musicians still work day jobs to pay the rent, just as we do. Underground artists, then, while unlikely to find massive returns and skyrocketing success, do stand to gain exposure and the potential for the ever-elusive critical breakout. Considering the difficulty of starting a musical career in these impossible modern times, that’s more than a fair bargain.

That said, I’m sympathetic to the opposing position. No reasonable person would suggest that artists shouldn’t receive compensation for their hard work. But, in an age where album sales are eclipsed by live concerts and fan merchandise, it seems like a battle being fought for the sake of nostalgia — for an idealized time that no longer exists. Whether artists like it or not, the internet and its potential for mass distribution isn’t going anywhere. As courageous and well-intentioned as these cyber protests are, sooner or later the white flag needs to be waved. After all, we can only go so long without “Shake It Off” in our playlists.

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