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According to Spotify, the 7 million artists that distribute music through their platform should count themselves lucky. In the eyes of the corporate giant, Spotify has provided musicians with unprecedented access to the eager ears of music fans, triumphantly demolishing the … barriers associated with traditional music distribution. Whilst Spotify and its shareholders pat themselves on the back, artists continue to raise concerns with the platform’s royalty model, regularly referencing the exploitative ideas that underpin it. 

For the consumer, streaming services are truly a marvel. For just £10 a month Spotify Premium members can delve into a catalogue of over 70 million old favourites, underground tracks and brand new releases, beamed directly to their device of choice. Gone are the days of “rare” records that are only heard by hoarding DJs and collectors. In this environment of endless and affordable possibility, spending a tenner on a CD or digital album feels somewhat ludicrous.

At its core, Spotify might also appear as a symbol of welcome liberation for musicians. Long held at the mercy of vicious contracts designed to line the pockets of company executives before themselves, artists now have, in theory, more opportunities to cut out the royalty-sucking middle man than ever before. Why then, do musicians continue to criticise Spotify and even go as far as to remove their catalogues from the platform entirely? 

Spotify insists that they do not pay artists on a “per-stream” basis. Instead, all the streaming revenue from a particular geographical region is put into a single monthly pot, before being dished out to rights holders in line with their artist’s “streamshare”. That is, if an artist contributes 1% of the overall streams in a region, whoever owns the rights to their music takes home 1% of the money pot. Spotify uses this approach to produce some pretty compelling statistics, focussing on the 13,400 artists who generated over $50,000 in revenue in 2020, and the $5 billion that the company paid out in total across the year. 

The shine on these numbers quickly dulls when you start to investigate the claims more deeply. The 13,400 earning over $50000 make up the top 0.01% of artists on the platform (and that’s only counting artists with over 1000 monthly listeners). Even amongst this elite group, it’s highly likely that many of the musicians and groups will be locked into record contracts that skim off the majority of the streaming revenue before it reaches the artists themselves. Ed Sheeran might get handed a healthy streaming cheque at the end of the month, but the payouts scale down rapidly as you descend below the global superstars.

Quite staggeringly, lacklustre earnings from Spotify and other streaming services have completely redefined the role that recording plays in a musician’s career. It is almost accepted that the creation of art is no longer enough – recorded music must be supplemented with live shows, merchandise, and other endevours for even a slim chance of making a creative living. The stripping away of the value of art and music is by no means a new phenomenon, but it’s hard to argue that streaming hasn’t taken it to new extremes. 

It’s quite possible that Spotify will not be able to pay artists any more than they currently do. The platform does not exist within a vacuum, instead operating inside a wider context of rampant commercialisation, disposability, and the upholding of capital above all else. Despite an astronomical growth in users over recent years, Spotify has famously struggled to turn a profit. If a business cannot even make money whilst exploiting those who generate its revenue, how can it ever be considered a success?

Is Spotify did decide they wanted to pay their artists properly, then they’d be put in a difficult position. The “free market” renders an increase in subscription fees practically impossible, unless other streaming services were to follow suit. It’s also hard to imagine the company ever wanting to give up any of their meagre profits in the name of “fairness”. Outside of a dismantling of the current economic systems we live under, there seems to be a distinct lack of solutions to the problems that streaming services have created. 

In reality, Spotify was never designed to provide a reliable livelihood for artists and its consumer-led model has been the biggest driver behind its continuing popularity. Perhaps changing consumer habits would accelerate positive change, but it would probably take a monumental drop in subscriber numbers for Spotify to take notice. I am writing this article with Spotify playing in the background, and recognise that I am also perpetuating the company’s exploitative practices. Again, maybe I should be doing more to support artists directly and break the damaging cycle in any small way.

Spotify could have liberated millions, and it’s possible that it still can. Without radical societal change though, it’s difficult to see where Spotify’s liberating power will emerge from.