Taylor Swift was right to pull her back catalogue from the parasitic claws of Spotify

Music streaming services are turning music into a fungible, disposable commodity

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The Independent Online

To the anguish of some of her more vocal fans, this week Taylor Swift abruptly removed all of her music from streaming online music services, including Spotify and Pandora. "Dear @taylorswift13, my kids & I love your music and listen often. Please come back to @Spotify; I'm not switching my habits for 1 artist." tweeted Lee C. Milstein. "Listening to @taylorswift13 on @youtube @vevo for "FREE" while unavailable on @spotify where we pay $9.99", complained Richard Greenfield.

At first glance this might seem like an unduly harsh manoeuvre on her behalf, but looking at the economics of the situation leaves a more impartial non-fan wondering not why she may have taken this seemingly drastic step, but why any major artist finds distributing her music via these services to be financially or artistically desirable.

For a musician, the important service that both conventional radio and online streaming services exist to provide is advertising the product that she has to sell; a service that in the days of mechanical reproduction of physical items and tightly controlled and licenced airwaves was pretty much inescapable.

These days, for an established act the kind of exposure offered by online services is not only superfluous but can actively harm sales: with her music pre-emptively in your pocket, why would you buy a Taylor Swift album that you essentially already own? Indeed, speculation that her record label is itself to be soon on sale has been mooted as a reason for her recent actions.

Swift is hardly the only artist to reconsider the utility of streaming online services. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke famously called Spotify "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse", painting it as "the last gasp of the old industry". His argument that musicians no longer need the old machinery of commerce to establish an online relationship with their fan base has much merit, at least for any artist visible enough to survive on their own. For those not yet in that happy firmament, Pandora’s relentless charge to reduce the royalties payable to the artist is positively frightening.

 

More parasitic than the radio stations of the established media (who at least provide a platform for culture and community) streaming services not only return less money to the artist than ever before, but are leading the charge for the permanent devaluation of music from an art form to a fungible, disposable commodity. Spotify’s problem - that it has to pay a fee every time people listen to its songs for free - is not only a financial disaster for the company, it’s also a cultural disaster for a musical society. Free quickly becomes indistinguishable from worthless.

The streaming audio services are hardly in this alone: the greed and technical ineptitude of the major labels over the last two decades is also well documented. Their inability to deliver a timely, practical mechanism for purchase of music online has been a clear contributor to the shift from an audience previously happy to pay musicians for their works now being aghast when the flow of free music is interrupted.

In Taylor Swift’s own words, in a piece for the Wall Street Journal: “It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

The financial return to a young musician has effectively never been lower; the competition for attention from other artists and technological diversions has certainly never been higher. The music industry has always been built on the hopes and dreams of the young and un-disillusioned; sadly, these days those dreams look a bit less practical than ever before.

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