Alleged flaws in the music business lead to Taylor Swift's biggest breakup yet
On October 27 Taylor Swift dropped her highly anticipated album, “1989.” During the first week following the album's release, the pop singer sold 1.287 million copies, according to data from Nielsen SoundScan. Additionally, Swift's album became the first this year to sell a million copies and the year's second highest seller overall, directly behind the Frozen soundtrack. However, shortly after the album release, Swift decided not to issue her new music to Spotify and withdrew her entire back catalogue from its archives—prompting users to pay up, or otherwise stream tears in lieu of songs. Yahoo approached Swift for an interview regarding the controversy during which Swift said, “I'm not willing to contribute my life's work to an experiment that I don't feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music. And I just don't agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.”
Having dodged the bullet of content leakage, Swift found herself in another game of tug-of-war as a consequence of her outspokenness. The controversy hinged on her judgement of this modern-day “experiment”—namely, the outsourcing of musical discovery through free streaming services—to be an unfair exchange and an issue of entitlement. Voices from the media and from Spotify’s headquarters expressed shock, disapproval and—whether feigned or not—an alarming degree of ignorance.
Spotify posted a public plea for Swift’s return: “We hope [Swift will] change her mind and join us in building a new music economy that works for everyone. We believe fans should be able to listen to music wherever and whenever they want, and that artists have an absolute right to be paid for their work and protected from piracy.”
King’s student Brian Stewart ('16), a spoken-word poet, musician and rapper, supports Spotify's position.
“Spotify...emphasizes listening to artists’ entire catalogs, which helps bring back the value older music had since it has been lost largely due to the digital movement and free downloading," Stewart said. "Sites like Spotify and Pandora open up lucrative opportunities for royalties by helping to put money back into pockets and contributing to the industry as consumers [should do] instead of free downloading and streaming leaks.”
Indeed, Spotify provides a legal alternative amidst a resurging population of pirates. However, according to the company's website, Spotify has 40 million users, only a quarter of whom pay a $10 monthly membership fee. According to Forbes magazine, the average iTunes user spends $43 annually on music. The $120 yearly rate for premium Spotify users far exceeds what most digital listeners are willing to spend on music, leading many to resort to cut corners and ways to listen free of charge.
Millenials' desire for free music has contributed to the plunge in album sales. Artist revenue, which is determined by the number of track plays and unpredictable factors such as advertising clicks, is quashed by the 30 percent royalties Spotify reaps.
The interesting part of this situation is that chart-toppers like Taylor Swift, who have the potential to generate substantial sums from Spotify, do not in any way rely upon Spotify's services for exposure or wealth. Lesser-known artists seeking both of these things are often shrouded by the massive volume of music present on Spotify, and outplayed by the few major artists who generate the bulk of Spotify’s revenue.
It takes an artist with preeminent status to benefit from Spotify, although Spotify has little impact on someone who already is big in the music industry, like Swift. However, it does require an artist of Swift’s magnitude to make a public statement that will blossom into widespread conversation.
Seasoned guitarist Paul McGilloway, who leads the house band at Arlene’s Grocery and has played off-Broadway and for Saturday Night Live after-parties, confronted the issue from an artist’s point of view.
He said, “As long as there is music in the world, [everyone can collect more of what they value], right? But if you can't survive as an artist, then there won’t be any art, will there? In the end, you respect what you work and pay for.”