The Guardian view on Spotify: I have a stream | Editorial

Spotify cannot be a monarch in music. Its users must be able to hold it to account for its actions

Spotify, now into its second decade, has seen criticism grow alongside usage. Each year, its campaign Wrapped rounds up statistics for each of the 191 million people who use the music streaming service – including lists of their most-played artists, their favourite genres and the number of minutes they spent listening. Within hours of the Wrapped launch last month, a meme began circulating, using an approximation of Spotify’s distinctive sans serif font to spell out “suckers”, along with an estimated stat of its own: “Plays needed to earn minimum wage: 1,117,021.” The accusation is that Spotify is leaving musicians out of pocket.

The Swedish firm was listed on the New York stock exchange in April. The company still loses money but cut its operating loss to just €6m – down from a €73m loss for the same period the previous year. As it heads towards profitability, the pressure increases to pay more to the musicians who underpin its business. Complicated as they are by distribution deals, Spotify won’t reveal per-stream royalty rates. Artists have calculated these at around half a penny. “Listeners would want us to be able to pay our bills and achieve basic dreams like starting families,” argued US indie musician Amber Coffman, sharing that “suckers” graphic.

Though music streaming services pay at different rates, none pay enough to satisfy musicians. Apple Music is gaining ground, and Amazon’s, though a distant third, is growing fast, further increasing the behemoth’s power. But as the world’s most popular streaming service, Spotify wields considerable influence. Prominent inclusion on major playlists can secure an artist’s popularity – take the success of young US rapper Juice WRLD, after being a constant presence in the tastemaking Rap Caviar playlist. Spotify took credit for the success of pop singers Lorde and Lauv in the application for its stock market listing; PRs and pluggers in the music industry now murmur about Spotify being more important than radio for breaking new artists. Its prominent support of a certain kind of gauzy, emotional electronic pop singer has even led to a snarky genre coinage: Spotifycore. It’s not always clear how it plans to wield its influence, though. In April, there was a muddled response to protests around R&B singer R Kelly and rapper XXXTentacion; Spotify censored them under a “hate content” policy that was quickly reversed.

While the human masters at Spotify may be some of the most powerful in the industry, their power arguably pales next to the artificial intelligence that underpins it. By monitoring our listening habits, this AI serves up suggestions for other artists we might like. The danger is that listeners who rely on Spotify to introduce them to new music are served up a relatively small number of artists – the ones that everyone else is listening to and the algorithm is monitoring. These caveats surround a significant, even utopian, quality of Spotify: instant access to the majority of all recorded pop music, in high quality.

Diving into discographies, or expanding one’s taste towards Korean pop or South African gqom, used to require deep pockets and time investment; Spotify, and its streaming peers, have dissolved these barriers, and turned music into a form of e-democracy. But like any democracy, there is a still a ruler, and it behoves those living under Spotify to hold it to account. Its influence means that it gets to define the cash value of musical expression, and being a profit-driven company, it will inevitably exert a downward pressure on it. As musicians and listeners, we must be the ones to try and prop it up.



The GuardianTramp

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