How Spotify and other Streaming Services Create Legal Artist Sweatshops

Online streaming and downloading services have changed my life. Unfortunately, they’ve also saddled me with a great deal of guilt. The foremost example of my emotionally distressed relationship with Internet technology is Spotify. Before discovering Spotify several years ago, I was stuck in what you might call a “musical quagmire.” I didn’t like what I heard on the radio, and because I went through a years-long phase of listening to only “Christian” music following my conversion, I lost track of pretty much everything but Third Day. I missed the entire Radiohead Era. Like, all of it. Alas.

Before Spotify, I was basically listening to Eric Clapton’s Unplugged on infinite loop in my truck’s CD player. Then, one glorious day, a friend’s Facebook page showed me what they were listening to on Spotify. I checked it out, and through both friend and Spotify recommendations, my musical life was resurrected. It’s been fun rediscovering the musical world!

So why the guilt? Because Spotify pays their artists as little as $.005 per play. So I have to listen to The Lumineers’ “Big Parade” 100 times for them to make 50 cents. I hope they don’t spend it all in one place!

It isn’t just my patronage of Spotify that bugs me. It’s my entire relationship with downloadable content. I buy video games on Steam during its summer sales, and sometimes I get the games for as much as 90 percent off. I watch television almost exclusively through Netflix, and I rent a lot of movies through Redbox. I know Redbox isn’t downloadable content, but still, I’m paying a dollar for a rental. A dollar! How can anyone make money with that kind of chump change?

Perhaps I’m a sensitive soul, and I shouldn’t worry so much about the starving artists who make great music, television, and movies. But it does bother me. I realize that Mumford & Sons probably does fine through Spotify because they get listened to a bazillion times a day. But what about smaller artists just starting out? To what extent does interest on Spotify translate into album sales for them?

I don’t know, but I must confess that I’m listening to Spotify even as I write this article, and tonight I may watch something on Netflix if I don’t play the video game I bought for $5. I feel like I’m running an artist sweatshop through my computer. Do me a favor and go listen to Deer Tick about a hundred times this afternoon. I’m really digging them lately, and I’d like for them to be able to buy a soda.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • Joshua Crabb

    It’ scary how much your story is the same as mine, except replace Radiohead era with the first two Vampire Weekend albums.

    Seriously, what is a guy supposed to do? Spotify is how I am able to listen to and discover new music without plundering my bank account into bankruptcy. However, I know artists and have friends in the music industry who have this love/hate relationship with Spotify because of it’s paltry pay out.

    I think, from what I am able to discern from taking to these guys, is that sites like Band Camp and Noisetrade help then make money and interact with fans and promote shows, while Spotify is more for exposure and expanding their audience. They don’t expect Spotify to be their money maker, but treat it more like playing free shows. It gets their name out there, even if they make nothing/little.

    Or maybe that helps me sleep at night…

  • http://Liter8.net/ Christopher Hutton

    I totally understand the ethics of this. But it is worth recognizing that Mp3s aren’t the biggest way they make money. If you like a band, then go buy their merch! Go to a concert, go buy a lanyard with their band name on it, and so much more. There’s a variety of options for counteracting one’s guilt over using Spotify.

  • Daniel A.

    I think it is a price to pay for exposure that was not around a decade ago. I know I’m exploring a whole range of artists that I was not able to back when record and radio exec’s controlled everything.

    I think artists who give out free material through NoiseTrade might be even more shortchanged than through Spotify. But they do it for the exposure.

  • Daniel A.

    I missed the first two Vampire Weekend records too. My music black hole coincides with when I was in graduate school and just starting my career. It is no telling what all else I missed between 2002-2010 either. I’m slowly finding that out through Spotify.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    If I hear something I like I still buy the disc. I have to have it in my hand- packaging, and all- and no, an mp3 on my iPod doesn’t count as “owning it”. The same goes for films.

    But, it’s just a matter of time before discs are done away with. Yeah… it’s not looking good for the creative types out there who hope to make a living from their work. The little screens in everyone’s hands has made everything disposable, and much less important.

  • Miron Arnold

    Look, there’s no reason to feel guilty. These industries
    have changed as they tend to do, nothing to be done about it. As technology
    improves it opens the door for new things and this causes a readjustment. If
    anything, recording artists have been greatly overpaid in the past, and this
    new set up allows for a more fair pay scale. It never sat right with me that a
    recording artist could earn more than a brain surgeon, and for most of our
    history where recoded music is concerned they couldn’t. This whole controversy
    surrounds a comparison to just a decade or two, and that’s it. Artists make
    their money by merchandizing and touring more than off music sales
    anyway. Don’t feel bad. You’re doing it the right way and not pirating. So long
    as it’s spotify, or pandora, or grooveshark, or torch music, or Rdio, or
    whatever, you’re doing what you’re supposed to. Just don’t pirate and you’re
    all good!

  • Alice

    People who want to see a movie on opening night pay more than those who wait for the dollar theater or RedBox. Same with video games. Generally the longer something has been out, the harder it is to sell, so the companies make a lot of money on the front end, and after that they are just glad to see a little gravy. Heck, people who watch network TV don’t pay for it at all.


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