OPINON: Spotify could be the saviour of independent music, instead it chose to help the big boys

Mark Roberts – The Mothers Earth Experiment @ The Dark Horse 13.07.18 / Ed King

Words by Mark Roberts – from The Mothers Earth Experiment

£9.99. That’s all it costs for you to rent all the music you could ever want every month. A steal you say, an absolute bargain, slap me silly and call me Brenda, it’s magnificent. This is all very true; at no point in music history has music been more accessible or cheap. This is the nirvana of the music listener, an endless supply of different bands and different styles, but is it the nirvana of the music creator? Is streaming the best delivery system for artists and listeners? 

You see, there’s an underlying inequality with streaming services and that is based in how they pay their artists. I’m going to use Spotify as an example because it’s the largest and because I know Spotify in and out, but this is symptomatic of all streaming services and isn’t meant to attack one business.

To calculate royalties, Spotify take all the money from all the subscribers in the world and divide it up based on individual plays on the service – ergo, the more listens an artist gets, the more money they get. You may be sitting there thinking “seems fair enough, what’s the problem?” but let me show you why it isn’t necessarily fair.

Imagine I’m running a massage parlour (the normal kind you dirty bastard) and I put a relaxing meditation album on… twelve hours a day, five days a week. Each song is three minutes long, that’s twenty songs an hour for twelve hours, 240 plays a day, 1200 plays a week, 62,400 plays a year. One single account can play 62,400 songs in a year for £120. The chances of a regular listener ever playing this much music is nigh impossible (if anyone has listened to this much music in the last year I’d love you to get in contact cause I think I’d like to give you a medal). This essentially means that business accounts, and what they listen to, are worth more than the average listener. Is it necessarily fair to base the money given to this meditation album on how many listens it gets when they’re all coming from one person, me?

This means that the reach and scope of your music is irrelevant it’s all about how many times it gets clicked on. It also means that the shorter your song, the more streams it can get in a year. This rewards short songs and penalises epic songs purely for being what they are.

One of my favourite people in the world, Jack Stratton of Vulfpeck, realised this incredibly early on. Vulfpeck decided to make Spotify their bitch and released an album they called Sleepify. It contains ten songs at 31-32 seconds each, all of which are… absolute silence. They asked fans to play Sleepify whilst they slept; with the songs being such a short length, over one eight hour sleep one person could rack up just under 960 plays a night. If you really loved Vulfpeck you could just keep it playing all day, which would equate to roughly 2880 plays. Sleepify was, you guessed it, pulled by Spotify for breaching terms and conditions, which term or condition however is still unknown today. Jack said, “it was removed under the terms violation that the artist shan’t make money” (basically they realised they’d gamed the system). Sleepify was estimated to have earned Vulfpeck about “$20000 in royalties” before it got taken down, which they used to fund a tour to the places that played Sleepify the most.

As you can see, Spotify and streaming services like it reward short content as well as content that’s played on repeat. They also reward bigger acts with bespoke deals, meaning acts like Pink Floyd – who wouldn’t join Spotify for years – get more than say The Orielles per play. I don’t think that’s fair, but unfortunately that’s capitalism in a nutshell (don’t get me started on capitalism).

You may at this point be wondering how the hell anything can be done about it; what can we do to avoid the pitfalls of streaming music and the way it affects smaller bands and larger songs? Well it’s actually rather simple. Right now Spotify takes all those £10 subscriptions, adds them together, and divides them between every play on the service. What if it was done the opposite way around though? What if Spotify took each person’s £10 subscription, calculated which bands and artists they listened to, and distributed their £10 out by the percentage of time they listened to each artist over a month? For example, if I listened to Radiohead for 30% of my listening time, The Grateful Dead for 30%, and Portishead for 40%, then Radiohead and The Grateful Dead would get £3 each and Portishead would get £4. Obviously Spotify would need to take a cut of that ten pounds to make a profit, but you get the point with the simple use of numbers.

Firstly, the fact that you would be calculating actual listening time and not ‘plays’ would mean that whether a song be long or short it wouldn’t matter; each second of music would be as valuable as the next. Secondly, by taking your £10 subscription fee and dividing it by what you listen to, it means your money is going directly to your favourite artists rather than going to artists that other people streamed a lot that year. It also means that if my massage parlour is listening to that meditation album all day every day, the meditation album will only get the full £10 a month subscription fee I pay, not some ridiculous amount of money.

If it’s so simple, why don’t they do it? The answer, I suspect, is money and influence. Can you imagine artists like Beyoncé or Arctic Monkeys to be over the moon about losing some revenue? They would most likely just say no to the new terms and leave the service. Spotify fears that above all else. However I fear that if Spotify could just play the game, hold its nerve and grit its teeth, eventually the big artists would blink first and come back, realising the mistake they’d made by leaving.

Maybe revolution is just around the corner; maybe we just need a new service for smaller acts, maybe we don’t. All I know is that currently small acts are getting shafted and it’s the fault of the streaming services. If you want to support a small band you could game Spotify to try and give them more revenue, but I’d say just go out and see their shows and buy their merch for now. Maybe one day we can bring egalitarianism to streaming, but for now it looks like nothing will change soon.

Mark Roberts is the lead guitarist/vocalist for The Mothers Earth Experiment. For more on The Mothers Earth Experiment, visit www.themothersearthexperiment.wordpress.com

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