The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



More to Taylor Swift’s and Spotify

| Sunday, November 16, 2014

web_taylorSara Shoemake
On Nov. 11, Scene published the article “Why Taylor Swift’s Spotify power move is the worst.” The closing paragraph read “Taylor Swift, then, has given up the possibility of introducing herself to new legions of zealous, lifelong fans and markets who would attend her shows, buy her merchandise and support her in many other ways, in favor of short term fans in a market that has become irrelevant.”

But what wasn’t touched upon is the naivety, ignorance and insensitivity towards struggling artists making music in the age of cheap, fast, digital media.

Let me start first by saying that I do not think Taylor Swift is a struggling artist. In fact, I think that it is exactly because she is not a struggling artist that she has been able to take her music off of Spotify.

Author of the article, Jimmy Kemper, claims that in taking her music off Spotify, Swift has given up the possibility of introducing herself to new fans, but does anyone honestly believe that she is worried about getting more fans?

As her record sales point out, she has become a household name in America, even before the release “1989.” Swift is taking advantage of an opportunity that few other artists share — she has finally made enough of a name for herself, and enough money, where she can escape from the most toxic, unfair musical outlet in the history of the music industry: digital streaming.

Music streaming is essentially the sweat shop of the music industry. For one, artists and labels are forced to participate in it because it is the only way in which people are willing to consume their music — if they don’t, people will simply opt for something cheaper: listening to artists who are streaming, or simply pirating the artist’s music online, which deprives the artist of even that eighth of a cent per stream. Artists are forced into this oppressive business because, yes, it is the best way to gain exposure (which helps gain them money during live touring) and because the other option is being totally robbed (via torrent, for example).

Yes, record sales are an important part of the equation, but for most artists, trying to sell one’s records either in the form of a physical LP, cassette or CD now has the comparative inconvenience to streaming music due to the tie to the physical need of not only the object through which you own the music, but the need for a CD player, cassette player, or turntable.

Digital media sales, too, are worth a mention, but as stated in last week’s article, pop music consumers only spend enough money to buy one album per year. This way, we are left with an industry where the bulk of consumption comes from services like Spotify and where an artist is left with only a tiny fraction of what they deserve — or “what they demand.”

For context, consider the revenue for an artist who has been less lucky than Taylor Swift. David Lowery, front man of Virginia-based alternative rock group “Cracker,” posted a picture to the web of their compensation from Spotify. The band received $12.05 for a song streamed over 160,000 times.

Now, even assuming that the number of streams is a 10th of the number of people who heard the song (e.g. every person streamed it 10 times), and even assuming that only a 100th of those people would have been willing to buy the song on iTunes had it not been available on iTunes, the band would still have made $1,500 from the 1,162 people who would have bought it — over 100 times more.

It should also be pointed out that the money artists are making from live shows is not an issue related to digital sales; the bottom line is that artists are being robbed and victimized by the current industry. While artists like U2 and Run the Jewels have chosen recently to release their albums for free, saying that “these artists are focusing more on the inherent value of the album and the potential for it to create new fans by breaking down monetary barriers and sharing their art with everyone.” Although I appreciate the sentiment of “breaking down monetary barriers” for the sake of sharing art, a distinction needs to be made between music made for the sake of art, music made for the sake of making money and artists who need to pay their bills.

Although lucrative and well known acts like U2 and underground breakout groups like Run the Jewels may have the ability to break down a monetary barrier and release albums for free in order to pad an already successful career, many artists are more concerned with the monetary barriers of being able to pay for an apartment and pay the bills, which keep them from making music in the first place.

While it’s fairly clear to see that Spotify is oppressing and keeping countless less successful artists from making enough money as they can, they are giving artists exposure. To go back to the sweat shop analogy: Spotify isn’t the fairest way of doing things, but it’s better than not having any exposure at all. The answer isn’t for Spotify to simply go away — this would be pulling the rug out from many artists who would be left with fewer, less popular outlets for their music. Spotify instead needs to adopt a more ethical model of business. They need to find a happy medium between optimizing their profits and making sure artists are making enough profit to keep them from flipping burgers as a side job.

Taylor Swift has made a wonderful statement by removing her music from Spotify. She has told the world and the music industry that she does not agree with the victimization and exploitation of artists who are forced to take part in an unfair industry. She has become lucky enough to have the kind of success that has allowed her to keep her music off Spotify — much like Beyoncé’s choice with her 2013 album, which also went platinum.

Until services like Spotify decide to take a more ethical approach to music distribution, I advocate that consumers start buying fair-trade; if you don’t want to buy physical copies of artist’s work, buy music on iTunes or Bandcamp, a music sharing platform run by artists who can choose their price or allow consumers to choose what they want to pay.

This may seem like an impractical way to upkeep the amount of music that the American 20-something consumes on a daily or weekly basis, but it’s the only practical way to keep the non-Taylor Swifts in business if you truly do like their music. As annoying as the reminder always is coming from your parents, they made by without all the music saturation we have every day. The end game isn’t to simply consume less music, but to force streaming services to find a more sustainable way to do their business.

About Thom Behrens

Thom is working to get a degree in Computer Engineering and, if he can pull it off, will graduate in 2016. In his free time, Thom likes to rip on Pitchfork, read books and hang out with Jay Michuda. Thom enjoys the chipotle alfredo sauce from the dining hall and is proud to represent the Dirty South Bend on campus.

Contact Thom