Online Streaming Services Devalue Art

Taylor Swift Pulling Music from Spotify is Evidence of a Larger Issue

Taylor Swift has made headlines over the past weeks, not only because her new album is selling in record breaking volumes, but because she has also taken her entire music catalog off the popular music streaming website Spotify.

Swift’s decision has been widely talked about, and is part of a larger debate happening in the music industry over the compensation artists’ receive for their work.

“I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music,” Swift told Yahoo Music in response to critics  who said she pulled her music from the service to generate more album sales.

The decision by Swift is part of a greater issue of unfair compensation for artists who allow their music to be streamed on these websites. As Swift suggested in her interview with Yahoo Music, the face of the music industry is changing and the days of buying a CD in the store are seemingly on their way out.

With music becoming more available on digital platforms, both legal and illegal, the question of artist compensation becomes crucial. Josh Welshman, an Audio Engineer at Flux Studios in Manhattan, says the music industry is feeling the effects of the illegal downloads as well as free streaming services.

“Recorded music, as a generator of revenue, is slumping due to illegal downloading, and any mediums where music can stream for free.  The budgets for records are dropping rapidly due to the fact that they don’t recoup the investment in record sales,” Welshman said.

From a service like iTunes, where the sale of the album is substantially returned to the artists, to a service like Spotify where each time a song is streamed the artist makes a fractional portion of the sale, or to the problem of illegal downloads and music sharing websites—the music industry and more specifically the artists are finding difficulty in the struggle to be compensated for their work.

The Spotify Problem

Taylor Swift is not the only one who thinks that Spotify under compensates their artists. Samantha Bowers, a student at Manhattan College as well as a singer-songwriter takes issue with Spotify streaming her own work. Bowers has released full length albums through the service.

“I get almost full profit from legal downloads off Rhapsody, Amazon and iTunes. Last Spotify pay period, I had almost 6,000 streams on Spotify and made $26.56. Really,” Bowers said.

Spotify’s website explains their system of revenue which states: “A Spotify Premium user delivers more than 2 x the amount of revenue to the industry (per year) as the average US music consumer currently does. Spotify’s goal is to convince millions of people around the world to become Premium subscribers and by doing so to re-grow the music industry.”

The issue is that artists simply aren’t seeing a return for their music. Spotify says that it is delivering twice the amount of revenue into the music industry, but the majority of that profit is not going back to the artist, as traditional album sales would, as the Spotify service pays their revenue back to online distributors and other branches of record labels, while keeping thirty percent of the revenue themselves.

For Bowers, who uses an online distribution company to get her music onto Spotify, the money she receives is not close to what she receives for services like iTunes or Amazon.

“I looked back a few pay days and did the math. On average I make 0.00448 cents per stream. So basically 5 thousandths of a cent,” Bowers said.

Beyond the Money

Besides the monetary issues for artists that surround online streaming sites like Spotify, issues of undervaluing their work come in other forms. Swift told Yahoo Music, “I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.”

“I try to stay really open-minded about things, because I do think it’s important to be a part of progress. But I think it’s really still up for debate whether this is actual progress, or whether this is taking the word “music” out of the music industry,” Swift said.

A larger issue at work is that music becoming digital has lead to music being openly distributed on the internet, illegally and of no benefit to the artist. Not only is there a lack of monetary compensation for the illegal distribution of their work, it places music as an unvalued commodity, as Swift suggested. Often the illegal sharing of the music results in a decrease in its quality, various forms of tampering with the tracks themselves change it from the artists’ original intention and creation.

Graphic by Andrew Fontaine
Graphic by Andrew Fontaine

In terms of illegal downloads, the digital form music is often stolen in can make it seem like a victimless crime, however it is actually the equivalent of walking into the store and stealing the album itself.

“Music is also art.  You wouldn’t walk into a museum, take a painting off the wall and walk out with it, no one would let you get away with that.  So why can people take music in that manner?  It is equally regarded as stealing in my eyes,” Welshman said.

Bowers too has felt the sting of this. “I’ve found some of my stuff on LimeWire and what not, and when I listen to it, I’m not proud of it. It sounds clouded and fuzzy, and often, entire instrument tracks are missing.”

“If I pay a bassist to come in and record over a track and we make something together that we are proud of, and people steal it offline, not only are we both not being paid for our work, his instrument can’t even be heard in the mix,” Bowers said, “It’s not fair to the artist or the listener.”

MC Paying the Price?

For Manhattan College students, the urge might be there to download music illegally rather than paying for it. If accounts like Bower’s aren’t enough to deter this urge, an email sent to the Manhattan College community from Michael Carey, Dean of Students, might be. In this email Carey included references to Supreme Court cases in which college students were fined for illegally sharing music.

These type of fines may be unavoidable for students who use illegal music sharing platforms, as Carey’s statement shows. “If presented with a lawful subpoena, the College may be required to disclose the names of those alleged to be violating U.S. Copyright law using College systems,” Carey’s notice read.

Whats Next?

Spotify released a statement in reaction to Swift pulling her music from their service. The statement noted that of Spotify’s 40 million users, 16 million played Swift’s music in the 30 days leading up to her decision. Spotify closed the statement with a reference to Swift’s songs, “PS – Taylor, we were both young when we first saw you, but now there’s more than 40 million of us who want you to stay, stay, stay. It’s a love story, baby, just say, Yes.”

Swift does not seem to be taking the matter as lightly, “I didn’t like the perception that it was putting forth. And so I decided to change the way I was doing things,” she said in her Yahoo Music interview.

Welshman sees Swifts move as a bold gesture in defense of the workers in the music industry. “Taylor Swift taking her music off Spotify, to me, is a motion to take a stand for us who put so much time and effort into making records,” Welshman said.

Bowers is taking the matter seriously as well, “In the future, I wish I could say I didn’t have to rely on steaming sites and could just use iTunes, but I know that in reality people just don’t want to buy music anymore,” she said.

“Spotify is a great resource to generate attention and get your name and music noticed, but unfortunately online streaming is killing the music business,” Bowers said. “Artists just aren’t being paid.”