Taylor Swift takes a stand over Spotify music royalties

Singer’s move condemned by some as shortsighted, but others see it as a savvy way to drive up album sales

This may well be remembered as the week Taylor Swift established herself as the most powerful 24-year-old in music industry history.

The singer’s latest album, 1989, is expected to have the largest sales week for any album since 2002, when Eminem sold a little over 1.3m copies of The Eminem Show in its first week. It will also be the first album to sell more than 1m copies in the US this year amid declines across the industry.

Yet this week was also marked by Swift’s decision to remove her entire back catalogue from music streaming site Spotify, arguably the biggest growing source of music consumption in the world. It boasts more than 10 million paying subscribers, across 58 countries, on top of the 30 million who access the streaming service for free.

The move has been condemned by some as shortsighted and applauded by others as a savvy way to drive up her album sales.

The singer was one of Spotify’s most popular artists, with 25% of listeners having streamed her songs. Her songs were on 19m playlists and the lead single from 1989, Shake It Off, went straight to number one on Spotify. But the singer’s relationship with the site has always been rocky – Swift initially refused to release her 2012 album Red on Spotify, critising the fact that artists receive between just $0.006 and $0.0084 per song play.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal in July this year, the singer said: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

Swift is not the first artist to withdraw music from spotify. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke called for a boycott of the service over unfair payment practices, removing all his solo projects from the site and describing it as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”. The Beatles, AC/DC and The Black Keys are also not available to stream on Spotify.

Despite the vast numbers of people streaming her music on the site, David Holmes, an editor for tech publication Pando Daily, did not think Swift removing her back catalogue from Spotify would “have any noticeable impact on her sales”.

He said: “She has probably sold over 1.3m copies of her album in the first week and nobody has done that since Eminem in 2002. She is one of the few artists today who can really drive sales and not just streams, so I don’t think this is a move that will hurt her at all.

“But Taylor Swift is an anomaly. I think you could count on one hand the number of artists that could pull this off and remain popular – as digital download sales are in freefall. I do think eventually every artist is going to have to be on a streaming service … Over time, if artists want their music to be heard in any meaningful way, they need to be on a streaming service.”

But Holmes said the implications of Swift’s move for Spotify could be more serious.

“In terms of Spotify this is really not great news, particularly because iTunes is about to relaunch its own streaming service,” he said. “iTunes is unique from Spotify because they also drive digital downloads, so we could see deals where artists are giving Apple exclusive rights to stream it, on whatever subscription service they create, because they are still focused on people buying their albums. And if Apple was able to get exclusive deals with the kinds of artists that still sell albums – your Beyoncés, your Taylor Swifts, your Lady Gagas – that will really, really hurt Spotify. So there are a few things about this in the long term that may not bode well for Spotify.”

Others have suggested that Swift’s decision to remove her music from Spotify could be tied to the sale of her Nashville-based record label Big Machine, for around $200m. Driving up the instant income from digital downloads, rather than the “steady trickle” from streaming, could boost the profits and value of the label, particularly as Swift, their most valuable asset, is nearing the end of her contract.

Spotify said it hoped that Swift would return to the service, noting that nearly 16 million users have played her songs in the last 30 days. The company claims it paid around $500m in royalties to rights holders last year and $1bn since 2009. It says the biggest album on the service each month typically generates more than $400,000 in royalties.

Jamie Oborne, manager of band The 1975 who also have a big teen following, said that for most musicians Spotify was now an essential part of people discovering and accessing their music and said Swift was “an isolated example”.

“For an artist like The 1975, Spotify is mainly a discovery tool,” he said. “It’s a new mode of consuming music and it obviously has a value. The fact that she had so many millions of subscribers does show there was a real audience for Taylor Swift on Spotify, so it was maybe an odd thing to have done but I wouldn’t say its risky for her.”

Oborne continued: “Spotify is growing in importance for all artists as it represents a cultural change in the way people consume music. We don’t see it as a negative platform – obviously like anyone we’d prefer to see the monetisation of streaming be higher – but I can see no reason the we would ever remove our music from it.”


Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The GuardianTramp

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