Is Spotify Bad for Artists? A Music Streaming Talk @ Murmrr Theatre

As I write this, I am listening to an artist that I found from Pandora. A totally defunct and unknown DJ known as Am-boy. But, being a conscious music consumer, I know that musicians only know make about .0084 cents a stream. So I bought the album and I listen to it on iTunes.

Because, if artists make .0084 cents for each Spotify play, I’d have to listen to Am-boy over 1,000 times to make sure he got paid $10. And the fact is, I just switched to Arms & Sleepers. Another Pandora find. Also bought that album.

When I went to the hiply misspelled Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn, it was during a tornado warning. The topic of conversation was Spotify and how the music streaming economy is ushering in “a new era of artist exploitation.” A storm of another kind.

It was hosted by the equally hip, tech-skeptical, capitalism-skeptical Baffler Magazine. Columnist Liz Pelly and streaming critic David Turner joined Xenia Rubinos, a living, breathing musician who even has a Wikipedia entry. So, the big time.

The weather was bad, but more hurricane horizontal than tornado tumble. I splashed into Murmrr Theatre wondering if it was the right place. The theatre itself (theatre, not theater… because r before e is classier, softer, hard to spell), is on the third floor of an old synagogue that reminds one of elementary classrooms and hallways.

The trek took me up three flights of worn-out stairs to a room full of an elite, educated, mustached, vintaged crowd with tote bags. Empanadas were two for $8 and amazing. I had four.

The theatre itself was packed. If this hurricane-heralded panel would result in a collective death rattle of the creative middle class, it was at least a death rattle done that would be done in style. With gold leaf paneling and pillars, a brilliant chandelier and a stage, Murmrr appears to be more ballroom than theatre and one can only imagine the naming meeting where a committee listened to the intermingling resonance of different voices against the high ceilings and proclaimed: it’s a murmrr. In a theatre. Not a murmur in a theater.

Beyond Economics

Liz Pelly started the conversation by setting aside Spotify’s notorious fraction-of-a-penny streaming practices. Spotify, she said, “is a cultural exchange without context.” The songs are curated automatically, with no background on the artist or song.

Listening to headphones while you work? You may not even know the song name.

You are simply delivered it, sans message, sans soul.

It was an interesting point. Streaming is just that: an on-tap stream. By turning music into something that just keeps going, like a faucet, we’ve turned it into a utility, not a spiritual remedy. It is damaging to take music for granted by blasting it into our headphones for eight to twelve hours a day.

The panel displayed, with contempt, a quote from Spotify CEO Daniel Ek that claims Spotify’s mission is to enable one million artists to live off their work. As David Turner, whose newsletter “Penny Fractions” delves into the music streaming business, pointed out: a million people is a lot of people.

At 0.0084 cents a stream, could Spotify really help artists make a living?

“Poppycock,” Turner concluded.

So if artists know that Spotify can’t pay the bills, is there any benefit?

A Debate about Streambait

Xenia Rubinos told the audience that the majority of her income is from live shows. But she also said that, in the early days, Spotify debuted her on a “Discover Weekly” playlist. And, as she played shows across the country, fans approached her and told her they found her on Spotify.

I thought this was, in a way, an interesting counterpoint to the economic protests. I’ve discovered countless artists via streaming and bought their albums and gone to their shows. But it’s true, too, that artists can’t be paid in awareness. If Spotify directly cuts into what would have been album sales, musicians are losing money.

The panel lamented the death of music journalism, a twisted spiral that has taken with it a lot of “awareness” and, also, a community effect that you can really only find in the niche forums of Reddit or in the angry comments of Metalsucks.

That’s when Turner started to air out a fresh new buzzword that I loved: streambait.

That’s when artists purposefully make songs and title them in accordance to what a streaming service like Spotify likes to see.

Pelly showed off at least a dozen Spotify playlists, automatically generated, that all said “chill” in the title. Then, she proceeded to play a video produced by Spotify that is meant to help artists interpret their song data.

In what can only be described as a hostage-like confession, the featured band Slenderbodies said that the data showed that their audience thought of them as electronic and playlists put them into electronic playlists. Even though, as they abashedly explain, they are a real band and have an “organic” sound.

Spotify’s advice? Listen to your fans. Crunch the data.

In this case, do some DJ sets. Call yourself electronic music. Even if you aren’t.

Does streambait work?

Ask Lil Nas X, whose “old Town Road” could have been, according to one manager, listed under country music in SoundCloud & iTunes “as a way to manipulate chart algorithms, as it would be easier to top the country charts than the dominant hip hop/rap charts.”

In Algorthim We Trust

This is where Xenia, as an artist, laid bare the glaring issue with Spotify that affects artists: it’s a black box. Who can tell what the algorithm is really doing with your songs? Why would it know better what your music really is?

What is “music” to a machine, exactly?

Numbers, Rubinos said, can be used to tell any story you want. When Spotify tried to categorize her, sometimes it put her with Eryka Badu. Other times, Japandroids.

More cynical, Turner said that even metrics like “monthly listeners” don’t matter. That’s just how many people that Spotify show ads to – because, as he explained, Spotify is an ad platform that plays music between ads. Not the other way around.

Turner cited a friend who had a radical solution: nationalize the streaming industry. The economics aren’t sustainable. The industry can’t bear a million, penny-fraction cuts.

Or, he wondered, what if there was an alternative? What if there was something in the works like… a co-op music platform that shared profits? A Bandcamp that’s artist owned?

Rubinos finished off with a story about a festival. It was a small festival in Chicago that kept wanting her to show up, year after year, but it wasn’t enough money. According to her management. But she said these were the people that supported her since the beginning. She said that she wanted to honor that.

After she played, in defiance of management’s advice, the festival organizers gave her a certificate thanking her for coming. She broke down in appreciation for the gesture.

“There’s usually no recognition for artists,” she said. The certificate, just a thank you, was “a reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

The Consumer Component

Much was made at the panel of the fact that, while Spotify pays less than a penny per stream, the company is paying more than $2 million a month in rent for its New York headquarters.

Turner also pointed to the research that surfaces periodically throughout the years that music’s middle class is being hollowed, while the top-billing acts continue to take home more of the money.

Where, I wondered, was the Spotify panelist? What would a well-oiled spokesperson say?

Many of Spotify’s employees are in bands. They go to local shows. I know that they love music.

Spotify isn’t the enemy so much as the marketplace itself. Because the big missing part of the panel was any whisper, any mention, of music consumers.

Essentially, music and books have followed a similar path to profit(lessness): the radio listeners who heard “Under the Bridge” from Red Hot Chili Peppers and bought the album, the people who bought airport thrillers before going onto a plane, the listeners who rolled the dice and bought a probably bad album just to listen to the two good songs… they’re gone.

They’ve moved onto a la carte streaming and infinitely free ebooks.

The only people crazy enough to fork over $10 for albums or buy paperback books are the truly passionate ones. They’re doing it for the sake of deep-seated appreciation or habit or acute awareness of creative economics. But they will never outnumber that much-needed middle class that has always been key to launching a band or author to super stardom.

If Spotify existed in the early 90s, Nirvana would still be a local band playing Seattle. Kurt Cobain would probably be a content marketer.

There are success stories all around you, though. Lil Nas X is a great one right now – but they are far from the norm. The musicians that suffer the most are the ones who need a dedicated fanbase but not a raving one, modest album success but nowhere near any kind of Billboard list.

But, as marketplaces like Amazon have replaced the makers of actual products, as Facebook has replaced news publications, so as Spotify replaced even something like a band’s name. After being exposed to twenty artists a day, it’s impossible to remember which one was the best. After all, the next day, just like a hurricane, just like the whispering murmurs lost in a theatre, it’s impossible to remember everything you heard.

And there’s no need to remember it or invest your emotion in the band. By next week, you’ll be curated another totally chill, totally great playlist where you can “discover” a bunch of other new bands. And forget them in time for next week.

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