The Ancien Régime. The House of Romanov. That MF Doom wannabe from Squid Game. To every uncaring, exploitative, top-serving system comes its moment of reckoning. And it seems Spotify has finally met its mutton-chopped Robespierre.
Last week, folk-rock titan and righteous man of plaid Neil Young insisted that his music be removed from the world’s premier streaming platform in protest at the company’s complicity in spreading anti-vax misinformation via its reported $100m exclusivity deal with Joe Rogan’s podcast The Joe Rogan Experience.
In classic rock parlance, a levee broke. Eighties pop commotion Lloyd Cole, an advocate for a Spotify exodus since at least 2014, also requested his songs be scrubbed from the service. Young’s progressive contemporary Joni Mitchell downed digital tools in solidarity, wanting no partnership, however distant, with “irresponsible people … spreading lies that are costing people’s lives”. James Blunt vowed to go nuclear for the cause, too. “If @spotify doesn’t immediately remove @joerogan, I will release new music onto the platform,” he threat-tweeted, and don’t think that monster won’t do it.
Rogangate isn’t the first ethical scandal to strike Spotify. When it emerged last November that the company’s billionaire CEO Daniel Ek was investing $100m in an AI defence tech company, numerous artists, horrified at the idea that their art was helping to fund cyberwarfare, cried boycott. But Young’s higher profile “it’s me or the drugs” moment might finally have sparked an artist’s revolt 10 years in the making. After a decade of musicians being expected, without argument, to produce the same amount and quality of music at the same great expense for a tiny fraction of their pre-streaming returns – because, um, “the future” – of late their rumblings of dissent have become a roar.
Having faced not only the drying up of their primary income stream but the knock-on effects of less invested fanbases and the pressures to maintain near-constant engagement, acts of all levels complain in private about their struggles to make music pay. Most are too scared to speak up, afraid to anger their new algorithmic overlords, but there have been sporadic rebellions. In 2013, Thom Yorke withdrew his solo music from the platform over the offensive artist royalty rate (Spotify still pays artists as little as $0.003 per play), and Taylor Swift followed suit in 2014, only making a return to the platform three years later on the proviso that all artists on her label, Universal Music Group, would get a share of Spotify profits (exacerbating, if anything, the favourable rates paid to major-label stars over independent acts).
It’s only now, however, that collectives of musicians such as Nadine Shah, Gomez’s Tom Gray, Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien have united behind the #BrokenRecord campaign, lobbied the government and helped instigate an official inquiry into the fairness of the UK streaming models. Rock’n’roll’s worm, thought trapped beneath streaming’s boot heel, is turning.
Until now, the problem was that contemporary mainstream acts have audiences too embedded in the streaming ideology, and too wedded to the market-leading outlet to fight back without shooting themselves in the complimentary Yeezys. Income-wise, they’re too immersed in first-gen streaming to swim against the tide. No, when it came, this was always going to be an establishment revolution, an old-money uprising, a top-down putsch.
It’s acts such as Young and Mitchell – with their album-buying audiences and evergreen hits destined to bring in the radio publishing wonga until they pave paradise and put up a parking lot – who can better afford to throw away what Young estimates as 60 per cent of their streaming income on a moral standpoint. The money, insulting as it is, simply isn’t as important to them as their integrity. You’d imagine receiving their Spotify cheques feels like getting a monthly thank-you cheese hamper from Cambridge Analytica.
All eyes are now on the Mount Olympus of financially secure ethical rockers: Springsteen, McCartney, U2, Coldplay, Elton, the much-rumoured Foo Fighters. Names that, between them, could blow a significant hole in the credibility and usefulness of Spotify as music’s one-stop discount superstore. If the rock aristocracy could stop queueing up to cash in their publishing chips for $400m (or nearest offer) and spare a thought for their true legacies, it could not only reshape the landscape of music consumption in favour of future generations of artists, but help create a streaming culture that values the foundations of great music – empathy, truth, compassion – over the mortal enemy of it: greed.
It’s no surprise that Spotify sided with Rogan. Even an artist as prolific as Young might drop two albums a year max, whereas Rogan draws 11 million listeners to the platform with every episode and can whack out engaging content at a rate that makes Dua Lipa’s Instagram look like the Sue Gray report. But history tells us that chasing profit and embracing populism is the death of the youth culture outlet. Noughties social media behemoth MySpace seemed to sink into the cyber quicksand the very night it was sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 2005. Facebook fell so far from favour amid allegations that it was in cahoots with Trump over fact-checking his speeches that it’s now having to undergo a desperate “how do you do, fellow meta-kids” rebrand. And now, users similarly unhappy with funding misinformation are flocking to cancel their Spotify subscriptions, crashing the platform’s departure pages and sending the company’s stock plummeting 25 per cent.
True, it would probably take the exeunt of some God-level streaming cash cows – Sheeran, Swift, BTS, Drake, Bieber, Bad Bunny (Puerto Rican rapper and most streamed artist of 2021, keep up) – to drive away enough users to make Ek think twice about basking in the tsunami of the conspiracist dollar. Anyway, where would they go? Alternatives like Amazon Music and Tidal offer more favourable artist royalty rates, but barely. Bandcamp, while allowing fans to reimburse artists fairly by buying their music like 2005 never stopped, is nowhere near as user-friendly and comprehensive. YouTube isn’t exactly allergic to misinformation. It’s also no simple task to get your music pulled from Spotify. It’s the labels that have the deals with the platform, not the artists; they can but request a purge. And as pandemic streaming sends revenues booming back to CD-era levels, a pittance of which they have to pass on to the artists, the labels (tap contractual sub-clause, sad face, shrug) are making digital hay.
Those giants of music streaming, however, should be wary of the pivot Ek’s decision augers. Podcasts are cheaper, more frequent and thus more lucrative, and becoming the focus of Spotify’s model. Blind loyalty to one platform might find even those A-list acts left somewhat high and dry if and when music becomes Spotify’s secondary concern and the big-league podcasters start demanding their own rightful slice. After the gold rush, best not to be panning for grains of value in increasingly worthless streams.
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