Spotify: Music Heaven or Musician’s Hell? – A Very Modern Problem

I love Spotify. If you like listening to music, I know that you love Spotify too.

Because what is there not to love? And I do mean love – I can vividly recall the dizzying, bewildering, heart-racing feelings when I first downloaded it a few years ago, and lots days discovering and rediscovering amazing music.

I became Spotify’s loudest, most rabid, most insistent acolyte, forcing family and friends to download it. (I still recommend you do, by the way)

Try it yourself – just say to your nearest and dearest, “Imagine your iTunes collection suddenly bloats and distends to include almost all music, ever,” and watch as their eyes widen, sold instantly on the idea.

So who couldn’t love Spotify? Well, maybe the artists who supply it with ‘content’. Murmurings of discontent have been slipping from between artists’ lips for a while now – grumblings about paltry payouts, mainly. A few labels have voted with their feet, and pulled their music from the service.

What is the deal with Spotify’s payment system? On one hand, Spotify says it has “driven” a not-inconsiderable $150 Million out to artists. On the other,  Jon Hopkins, from the excellent King Creosote, says he got £8 for 90,000 plays.

So is Jon right to be aggrieved? Well, I’m not an artist. I’m a consumer – a paying Spotify user who considers £5 a month a tiny amount to pay for so much music. Hey, I’m listening to Spotify as I write this (Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, if you must know)

I can see why Jon’s annoyed. £8 seems like the wrong kind of tiny amount for music – from the point of view of the artist. But is there more to it than that?

If, as Jon says, BBC Radio 1 pay about £50 per play, Spotify certainly does appear miserly. But think about these numbers and how our perception of a ‘play’ fits into them.

90,000 plays on Spotify doesn’t equate to 90,000 people hearing the song once. Their are people, like me, who will hammer an individual song 20 times in a row if they’re in an obsessive mood, and this behaviour distorts the figure instantly.

One play on Spotify doesn’t mean the listener likes the song, or even listens to it. What if one of those ‘plays’ is a person idly pointing an ear towards a song for ten seconds, pulling a face, and skipping on to another? Should the amount paid to the artist factor in those people, these occurances?

Then consider this: each Radio 1 play will reach a lot more than, say, 90,000 listeners – it’ll be heard by hundreds of thousands at least, and many millions if it’s on the bigger shows.

Does each of these listeners hearing the song once on the radio equate to a “play”? If so, a £50 payment for having your song played to three million people doesn’t seem such a great deal.


In the end, it all boils down to control: the Spotify users control what they listen to – and the artist can decide whether they want their music to appear on there or not.

But at least there is control: would artists like Jon prefer it if the supply of their music was regulated – albeit in exchange for merely beer money –  or that their music was downloaded via a torrent, and any semblance of artist control lost forever?

And, as the ever-perceptive Sean Adams from Drowned In Sound pointed out:

I advise new bands to put music on Spotify if possible, not so much for the money, but purely for the fact that one of Spotify’s zillions of listeners might find you, become a fan, and then support you by attending gigs, buying merchandise, and coquettishly hassling you to come back stage and share your rider.

Listeners (like me) used to hate paying £15 for just one CD a decade ago, and although record sales could actually generate income then, the artists didn’t make a huge amount, either.

So now the artist gets screwed directly, as opposed to via a label – but now the consumer now thinks they’re getting a fairer deal. Is this right? Probably not, but what are the viable alternatives right now?

I feel for Jon. £8 for 90,000 plays doesn’t seem right. But then, if Spotify didn’t exist, 90,000 plays of your song might not have taken place.

Being angry with Spotify is probably not the answer. Spotify is a reflection of the times and of how people have decided to consume music now.

In a period where a heavy, grey cloud looms large over all music, is it better to look for a silver lining – regardless of how thinly beaten that lining is – or to stand your ground and rage against the status quo?

Ultimately, it’s for us – because we’re all consumers – to decide how this pans out. And for now, the vast majority of us like our music as close to free as we can get it.

7 thoughts on “Spotify: Music Heaven or Musician’s Hell? – A Very Modern Problem

  1. I think you’ve nailed it here – Spotify is great for the music fan. For the artist it’s all about choice and control – nobody is forcing an artist to put their music on Spotify. If artists don’t want there music on there and are signed then they need to be savvy when signing deals with labels and ensuring that they retain control over this aspect. Generally signing a deal means signing away a greater or lesser degree of control.

    Interestingly with Myspace in ‘the good old days’ the Myspace player only allowed something like 4 (or was it 6) songs per artist to be streamed hence you could get a feel for the act but would still need to make a purchase if you wanted to hear more. Maybe this is something that artists could consider with Spotify? (Not sure if this would be a good or bad thing)

    Finally, what about other streaming services ? For example music blogs stream music that is given to them by artists (the good blogs that is that only use artist / label approved streams ). If as a blogger I’m given a track to stream and I choose to do so – would an artist or label complain that they are not receiving money for those streams ? That would be an interesting one, and paves the whole way about a debate around if music blogs should be licensed and pay a fee for what they do (rather like radio)

  2. Sea Glasses: Every-day Pleasure | A New Band A Day!

  3. Good article overall, but I don’t understand why people balk at the idea of paying £15 for a cd as a sort of justification for sticking it to the evil old majors.

    That’s a little over a quid a track, which compares pretty favourably to itunes or something. And Lps cost just over £2 back in the sixties, in an era when a wage of £15 a week wasn’t unusual.

    Lets face it- ANY amount of money is gonna sound expensive next to a free/pinched download.

  4. Hi Will – thanks for your comment.

    I understand what you are saying about the price of CDs. I certainly don’t begrudge paying for music (I don’t torrent any music at all).

    But £15 never seemed like the right price for a CD ten years ago, and it still doesn’t quite seem right now, either.

    For me, it’s not about sticking it to the man/the majors, it’s just a gut feeling when presented with a product and a price.

    But one man’s 15 quid is another man’s fiver – to coin a terrible metaphor – so each to their own.



  5. Just saw this, thought I’d chime in.
    If I were on Spotify, I might be upset at those numbers too. Sure, some may be partial plays, repeats, etc, but I’d be hard pressed to believe that there would be that many of them to pull a number that low.

    It depends on their agreement too.
    Read an article with Uniform Motion where they get about 0.0041 USD (about 0.00267 GBP) per single play. For sake of argument, say Hopkins had the same deal.

    At 8 GBP, that equates to just 2,996 “legitimate” plays or 3.329% of the 90,000. That kind of percentage makes me wonder just how Spotify decides to count plays. If someone listens to 75%+ of the track, then skips, do they get discount the entire play?

    It would be interesting to find out.

  6. Hi Bryan – yep, I agree: what counts as a play? Maybe this is an old concept now, and we all (i.e. artists, listeners, Spotify) should agree on another payment system.

    Why pick a ‘play’ as a unit of measurement? Why not ‘reach’, or how often a Spotify link is shared (that results in a ‘play’)?

    Why not pay by the minute? Or data transferred?

    It’s a tough one. Where do you pin the value on music when it no longer has physicality on which to attach it? Does music have no value at all?


  7. Flowers; and Why Thom Yorke Misses The (Decimal) Point | A New Band A Day!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *