Joe Rogan is a former TV commentator in the USA who now does a podcast on Spotify. He recently said some controversial things about Covid vaccines and thereby stirred up the usual hornet’s nest. The good thing is that on the back of that controversy, Alex Ross has written a thought-provoking piece on why services like Spotify and Apple Music (and to our mind Amazon / Kindle) are ending up giving a raw deal to musicians, authors and, in general, creative people.
In the olden days, you or I would go to a music store or bookstore and buy our music. It was basically a bilateral trade i.e. you as an individual customer negotiating with the record label via the retailer. Platforms like Amazon and Kindle have changed that equation – they are in effect aggregating your, mine and everyone else’s demand for music or books (using big data they know exactly how much we want to listen to which song) and then, effectively, buying on our behalf from the musician or the author. There is therefore a mismatch in bargaining power: a giant platform with enormous amounts of data and financial muscle is negotiating with the musician or the author. The result: “The singer-songwriter and author Damon Krukowski, who has been my chief guide to the streaming racket for a decade, delivers a scalding summary in his latest newsletter:
Spotify used the financial model of arbitrage to obtain a cheap if not free product—digital music—and resell it in a new context to realize profit. In other words, Spotify’s profit requires that digital music have no value. Spotify continually talks down the value of music on their platform—they offer it for free; they tell musicians we are lucky to be paid anything for it; they insist that without their service, there is only piracy and zero income.
Add to this the fact that Spotify, like all forms of streaming, is environmentally destructive, consuming more energy than the music-distribution systems of previous eras.
When revenues from record sales plummeted, artists were told that they could still make a decent living from touring, merchandising, and so forth. Ek gave further sage advice in a 2020 interview: “You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough . . . It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.” He went on to suggest that artists emulate Taylor Swift, who, with the release of “folklore,” had just scored nearly ninety-eight million streams in a single day. The message is clear enough: to thrive in the streaming era, all you need to do is to attain such mammoth, oxygen-depleting fame that a piddling four-tenths of a cent can be multiplied into hundreds of thousands of dollars. To those with much, more will be given. The coldness of the logic became starkly clear when the pandemic shut down touring, wiping out those who were eking out a livelihood on the road.
Spotify, like Facebook and Amazon, has the advantage of being odiously indispensable. No matter how much people grow to hate the service, they cannot envision life without it. Those who have jettisoned their record collections are unlikely to begin buying individual albums again. This cycle of addiction and dependence is at the core of Big Tech’s domination, together with the well-worn argument of technological fatalism: change is inevitable, resistance is futile, the empire always wins.”
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