Taylor Swift is a (rich) dinosaur. Spotify’s an asteroid.

Stephen Kellogg et al.

In case lesser issues have distracted you: Taylor Swift recently removed all of her songs from Spotify, which streams recordings. She complained that Spotify didn’t pay her a sufficient amount for each time someone listened to one of her songs. At this point in her career she can maximize her income by reducing her music’s availability, thereby encouraging sales of CDs and viewings of videos. This is a business practice that the Beatles follow, too. Conversely, Led Zeppelin recently calculated that they could make more money by releasing their albums on Spotify, so they did.

Swift dressed up this decision with specious appeals to valuing art (although she made millions of dollars each year from streaming), and this posturing has garnered more press and less derision than it deserves.

Nonetheless, my aim here is a bit different: to explore the consequences of streaming for listeners. Few acts will follow in Swift’s tracks, because they’ll make even less money without Spotify (and Pandora, etc.). In short: it’s getting harder to strike it rich off recordings, so what’s the fallout? I’ve listed my pros and cons:

I like

  • I can listen to a multitude of recordings that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise.
  • I’m not dependent on the radio to explore new music.
  • I don’t have to buy another album to hear (and inevitably reject) the remix.
  • I know that musicians get paid for every song I hear.
  • Musicians depend more on revenues from concerts, so they tour more.

I don’t like

  • People’s favorite musicians are more likely to live far away, so live music by local bands is less popular.
  • Touring acts charge more for concerts.
  • Recording a cohesive album is less important.
  • Sound quality is lower.
  • Printed lyrics aren’t included, and an album cover barely is.
  • Corporate sponsorship of popular musicians is even more likely.

By the way, I love and buy physical albums. To my wife’s chagrin, I own several hundred records, cassettes, and CDs, and I prefer to listen to many of them in their entirety. I also love Spotify, because I’d like to hear, for example, Taylor Swift’s music at least once before condemning it. More seriously, Spotify (I pay for the premium service) lets me select music that isn’t worth purchasing on a CD. I also understand the artist’s side of things: My own, unpopular album languishes on Spotify, where it earns me less money than the small cost of maintaining it online. Trust me – I’d be happy if Spotify paid more.

But it can’t, because it doesn’t turn a profit as it is. Still, it’s better for musicians to receive a pittance and easy, worldwide exposure than to return to the days of surreptitious MP3-sharing, which yielded them no direct revenue. Acts who don’t appeal so strongly to teenage girls wouldn’t do so well selling legitimate CDs as Taylor Swift has.

Here’s my pipe dream: the ever-shrinking amount of money going to the industry through the purchase of recordings will mean that  local or regional acts, featuring passionate musicians with day jobs, will regain the preeminence they lost decades ago to musical corporations/corporate shills, as The Who and Rolling Stones have become.

So I cheer for Spotify and the other streamers not because they’ll save the music industry but because they might wreck it – and because, in the long run, something might evolve in its place that’s more democratic, idiosyncratic, and human. I’m not referring to Taylor Swift.


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