‘I wish I could’: why it’s hard for smaller artists to boycott Spotify

The feud between major artists and Spotify has overlooked problems faced by those with less power and finances

The past week has seen artists such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash and Nils Lofgren stand up to Spotify, boycotting the streaming giant because of Covid-19 misinformation spread on its popular and exclusively available The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Their protest has been applauded by many, but indie rapper Open Mike Eagle tweeted a very different perspective.

“I love Neil Young but i’m not following that crazy rich man anywhere,” he wrote before adding: “what’s the protest option for non set for life musicians?”

Eagle says that the logic of following in Young’s anti-Spotify footsteps seems convoluted to the point of absurdity, adding: “If we’re going to do collective work as musicians to try and affect something, why don’t we start with the low rates that Spotify pays musicians? That affects me more as a musician than whatever Joe Rogan said on his podcast.”

While he wouldn’t give hard numbers, Eagle recalled earning 90% profits from each $10 CD he sold at the beginning of his career. Compared with the approximate .003 cents ra stream he earns from his approximately 120,000-150,000 monthly Spotify listeners, Eagle says that is “a pretty big change from the way things were”.

The Young-Spotify saga (which prompted the platform to add an advisory pointing listeners to correct Covid-19 information, as the company began losing billions in market value before Rogan semi-apologized on Instagram) has also sparked debates in other genres. Eve 6, for instance, tweeted: “our stupid band gets close to a million monthly streams on spotify. spotify pays out .003 cents per stream. 100% of that goes to our former label sony who is a part owner of Spotify. this is why i’m mad.”

Open Mike Eagle
Open Mike Eagle contends that it’s not economically feasible for every artist to boycott Spotify. Photograph: Emari Traffie/Mello Music Group

What’s more: Eve 6 frontman Max Collins tells the Guardian many acts, including his band, cannot remove their music from Spotify because they do not own their masters. Some that do fret the loss of exposure and what income they do gain on the platform. One artist with such concerns is Nashville singer-songwriter Katie Pruitt, who tweeted: “Honestly wish I could take my music off Spotify as a form of protest but my broke ass actually needs the .00331 cents per stream. If you’re thinking about cancelling your Spotify membership please also consider buying concert tickets/merch/vinyl ect [sic].”

While Pruitt didn’t respond to interview requests (along with reps for Young, Rogan, Spotify, Mitchell and Lofgren), a number of artists who commented on her viral tweet did. Anaheim Americana artist Bobbo Byrnes stood out as eager to join Young’s Spotify boycott, regardless of the impact on his comparatively meager bottom line. Byrnes says 2021 was his biggest year yet on Spotify and he was “added to 2,000 playlists and blah, blah, blah – I still haven’t broken 100,000 plays total, and I’ve now removed my highest play count songs”. Therefore, he didn’t feel he had much to lose by boycotting because, in his view, Spotify’s low payout per stream means “it takes over 10 million streams to make minimum wage”.

Even though Eve 6 cannot yank its music like Byrnes did, Collins says he is “interested in hurting Spotify as much as possible because that is the only way we will ever wrest fair pay out of them”. Specifically: the band is attempting to change their profile header on the streamer to “delete spotify”. He points out this change is taking the platform “an inordinate amount of time … curious for a company taking an ‘anti-censorship’ stance”.

While Eve 6’s methods may seem intense, Byrnes describes labels as “bullying” their artists into being on Spotify. The imprint that distributes all his music prior to 2020, when he began releasing albums himself, has refused his demands to pull those older songs from the streamer. Regardless, the music he has on Spotify and other such streaming platforms makes him merely one-fifth, at most, of what he earns by self-releasing and avoiding label gauging. Byrnes adds: “Spotify and streaming was a bad deal from the start. But we were told we just have to grin and bear it from our labels, because streaming is the future.”

Such low offerings for musicians are all the more galling when Rogan is given unprecedented sums by the streaming service, and goes on to uncritically host anti-vax and anti-trans guests. Jennifer Moraca is a scientist by day who plays in the band the Odd Birds. As a non-binary musician, the Rogan podcast rhetoric led to a “breaking point”, despite not “blanket disagreeing with everything” the host and comedian says. Moraca admits that being subsequently compelled to pull the band’s music off Spotify was not a painful decision, because their albums that have been available to stream there for two years only made about $5 – less than one CD sale or a concert’s filled tip jar. Rogan’s licensing deal with Spotify, meanwhile, was worth $100m.

Neil Young and Joni Mitchell in 1976
Neil Young and Joni Mitchell in 1976. Both have pulled their work from Spotify. Photograph: Ed Perlstein/Redferns

Despite his growing infamy, Rogan and co are by no means the only source of misinformation in the streaming game. Jeremy Burchard, the co-founder of both pop-rock band Moonlight Social and a fintech platform called RootNote (designed to help artists better understand their content performance, revenue and growth opportunities), says he was pleased to see Pruitt specifically mention in her tweet “the money she gets per stream from Spotify”. That’s because that conversation becomes “conflated a lot” in his view “and people don’t realize that it’s different for every artist, just one of the many aspects of the current ecosystem that has led to a lot of frustration, confusion, misinformation and general ennui when it comes to specifically promoting your music on streaming platforms.”

Since 2018, Moonlight Social earned about $7,500 from the masters side of their music on streaming, while their publishing earnings brought that total closer to $9,000. About half of that sum was from Spotify, which may sound impressive until Burchard says what they pay is “about half of what Apple Music and Amazon pay us”. And while the majority of their listeners are on Spotify, Moonlight Social are “definitely seeing more and more people choosing Apple Music, and Amazon Music to a lesser extent”. Burchard is also encouraged by the promise of other platforms. Patreon, for instance, allows for $5 a month pledges that would each be the equivalent in revenue of a Spotify user streaming an artist 1,500 times a month (the unlikelihood of which Burchard is quick to emphasize). He adds that performing on video livestreamer Twitch can drive major revenue for smaller artists (which he detailed in a recent video). While they are not direct replacements for streaming platforms, Patreon, Twitch and the merch store his band created on Shopify provide artists with huge opportunities, says Burchard. For instance, he adds: “Twitch is about interacting with viewers and providing value by performing and developing community. Spotify is all about volume. Crazy high volume just to get to sustainable revenue.”

But when it comes to Spotify, Apple, or even Twitch, “it’s the same story”, according to Peter Tschmuck, professor for Cultural Institutions Studies at the University of Music and Performing Art Vienna. By that, he means they are, above all, “important promotional platforms”. Tschmuck says musicians need these services, especially the ubiquitous Spotify, to be heard, hence the trepidation around boycotts for so many. But as revenue sources, he stops short of calling the platforms “unfair, but it is uneven”. And because the systems of dividing such revenue are so complex – factoring in publishing and distribution, massive cuts for the platforms and labels, greater sums for artists that own their copyrights than those who do not, and much more – Tschmuck says the debate should be equally complex, and will likely remain ongoing. Rather than a definitive turning point, Tschmuck sees the current artist solidarity with Young as a chapter following many others, be it British MPs recently calling for a hard streaming reset to better protect musicians, or Taylor Swift bowing out of Spotify as far back as 2014. As Tschmuck puts it: “This is just another voice in the debate about artists not earning a lot of money from music streaming.”


Kyle Mullin

The GuardianTramp

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