It’s both familiar and thoroughly sinister. In an article that details many of the ways in which major streaming services are crushing musicians – the pitiful revenue allocation, the bias toward superstars at the expense of independent artists, the algorithmic re-enforcement of the music industry’s very worst prejudices – VICE reaches the following conclusion on how to combat the exploitation of artists at the hands of Spotify, Apple Music et al: “The only way these new systems will work is if we devote ourselves to using them…one behaviour I’ve adopted is using Spotify to listen to artists like Ariana Grande, and then Bandcamp for everything else.” It’s inconceivable, or perhaps just inconvenient, to propose that we stop using streaming services altogether. No matter how loudly we lament their unethical practices, paying £10 a month to fund their continued existence will always speak louder.
The problem is partly rooted in the cultivation of a different type of listening. Streaming services work to disincentivise deep appraisals of single records, and to eliminate the discomfort involved in developing an appreciation for challenging music. The user is goaded into facing outward, away from their existing record collection and toward the next potential discovery, lured out of one band and into the algorithmic web of “related artists”, never settling long enough to truly tap into the essence of one artist in particular – perhaps not even long enough to remember their name tomorrow. Spotify seeks to cultivate a userbase of pond-skaters, where listening is a relentless traversal of the horizontal axis – from artist to artist to artist – and never shifts into a vertical submergence that might bring listeners and musicians into spiritual kinship, thus eroding the value of each artist as an individual entity.
We are encouraged instead toward listening passivity. Playlists accessorise the experience of music and reduce it to a mere accompaniment for something “more important” (Morning Coffee, Music For Concentration, A.M. Commute etc). These playlists further the distance between listeners and artists, with the latter relegated in this context to the anonymous creators of “content”. If lucky, they’ll have tracks ripped out of their albums, churned through the algorithmic sorting machine, then plonked into a playlist designed to fulfil a specific function. Instead of engaging with an intimate dialogue with the listener, the musician’s work is forced through the lens of the playlist’s remit, with the rich complexity of artistic intention being flattened to fit. If the track doesn’t fulfil the playlist function, it’ll be skipped. The power dynamic is clear: the artist serves Spotify, which in turn serves the listener. Users can pay a mere £10 a month to access millions of songs whenever they please, while an artist needs to see approximately 350 plays before they get a single pound in return. With the artist subordinated and denied any direct, meaningful contact with an audience, we are encouraged to overlook this disparity in treatment.
To seal the deal, these platforms weaken our collective powers of deep listening and scrutiny. The same reflexes that compel us toward challenging music are also activated when we confront the shoddy ethics underpinning the businesses we choose to support. The exploitative nature of Spotify’s revenue model is tucked out of reach of our surface-level engagement with the platform. As seen when Spotify neglected to raise the revenue allocation as musicians started to feel the impact of COVID, instead allowing artists to fundraise from fans directly from their artist page, the platform has successfully raised its business model above the realm of interrogation. This was clear during CEO Daniel Ek’s recent interview with Music Ally, where he stated that artists “can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough. The artists today that are making it realise that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans.” Apparently artists now have no choice than to play the game that is hard-coded to crush them, and to place the onus squarely on themselves for their dwindling income.
When outlets such as VICE acknowledge the issues with streaming platforms yet don’t implore readers to pull support, they pander to the illusion that Spotify is now an immovable object within our collective reality. Apparently, halting that £10 direct debit is out of the question – we have no choice but to continue sending funds to these platforms and learn to co-exist with them. This is a lie. It’s actually quick and simple to delete your Spotify account. There’s an initial moment of discomfort, but just as when one persists with challenging music, the rewards quickly follow.