It doesn’t matter if you like Taylor Swift or not. On Monday November 3rd, she pulled all of her music off of digital streaming service Spotify. And in doing so, she illuminated a critical factor in the debate over music technology that has often been left out of the conversation: the relationship between the artist and the fan.
Spotify will have you believe that Swift removing her music from their service is about ignoring what fans want. Just read the blog post on their website on the topic and be underwhelmed by the fervent tone underscored by a patronizing smirk. But hey, what is Spotify, after all? Spotify is ONE company. It’s just one platform for delivering music. They speak as if Taylor Swift fans exist solely on planet Spotify, a chorus of adulating voices crying, “Please don’t leave, Ms. Swift!” Meanwhile, on planet earth, and without her new album 1989 ever being available on their service, Swift sold 1.287 million copies in the week ending November 2nd.
Artists want fans to buy their music. Fans want this music to be easily accessible and reasonably priced. So who is pushing the idea that fans are the ones demanding that music cost next-to-nothing – or else they’ll steal it? Not fans. The loudest proclamations are coming from technology companies who want to steal the intrinsic value of the music for themselves. Spotify says it loud and clear on their artist page. “Spotify has already made considerable progress towards restoring the value lost to piracy and other less well monetized forms of music consumption.” What they don’t say is that the “value lost to piracy” has proved valuable to Spotify – but not the artists whose music they peddle at the margin between free and a little spare change.
If fans really stopped to think about it, does it make rational sense that nearly ALL of recorded music could be available at the click of a button for just $10 a month - or for free on Spotify's ad supported tier - and at the same time be sustainable for artists to continue to create? It sounds too good to be true, and it is. Artists and fans have a mutual interest to nurture a relationship that ensures that the music they love keeps getting created. I attended October’s private meeting between artists, managers and Spotify at the Soho House, and their tactic was to tell us that we have to take their lousy terms – because that’s better than nothing. Let’s call it what it is: corporate bullying that exploits the bond between artist and fan for their own financial gratification.
In music and in life, if Taylor Swift is in a bad relationship she wants out. Who can judge her for that? It’s true that she can afford to make these choices. But for the working class artists across the country operating independently and in niche genres who can never fit into a streaming model based on high volume sales alone, Swift’s move is one to celebrate. We’ve always counted on our small but loyal fan bases to support our work at a reasonable price so we can continue to devote the time, energy and resources to making art that moves people. If you love Swift’s music, celebrate that she’s stood up for her right to claim a certain value for her work. If you hate Swift’s music, celebrate her move against Spotify’s unsustainable business model as one small step away from a homogenous culture of all pop hits, all the time.