A quick search on Twitter will show you a near-infinite feed of people saying that Spotify knows them better than anyone else in the world. This may not seem like a problem, and in fact even looks like a solution. “Hey, I just heard this new song on Spotify and it’s so good” or “I just found this band on Spotify and I love them already” are sentiments shared by millions of people around the world. Streaming music is easier, discovering new songs and artists is easier, and the numbers show that people prefer it that way.
As of today, Spotify has 180 million users, which makes it the biggest music streaming platform in the world as confirmed in its letter to its shareholders dated Q2 2018. This might not be a problem for consumers, but it presents troubling implications for independent musicians who hope to use the platform to promote their music.
According to BuzzAngle Music’s 2017 Report, more than 99% of all music streaming comes from just the top 10% of songs. Which means less than 1% of streams account for the remaining 90% of music. Spotify and other streaming giants have enormous influence on what music gets heard, and with major record labels as their most important supplier, you can expect that Spotify is giving the short end of the stick to independent labels and musicians.
Spotify has four types of playlists: (1) algorithm-driven playlists (e.g., Discover Weekly, Daily Mix and Release Radar) which offer similar and/or related music based on your listening history, (2) Spotify curated playlists which are mood and genre-based playlists that are compiled by Spotify staff, (3) branded playlists which are sponsored and curated by brands and corporations, and (4) user-generated playlists which are created by Spotify users themselves.
The first three types of playlists are all designed to maximize streaming and clearly favor major artists for the following reasons: (1) algorithm-driven playlists are self-perpetuating echo chambers, paradoxically narrowing down your options by introducing you to new music – the most played songs of the most played musicians from related genres – meaning: if you are a relatively unknown act, don’t even expect to be a part of any of these playlists; (2) major record labels have the resources to promote their artists and get them onto Spotify curated playlists, and as major artists gain more streams in the Spotify curated playlist, the chances of them being included in algorithmic playlists increases, which in turn exposes them to more listeners and so on, creating a snowball effect of increasing popularity; (3) major labels also have their own companies that provide playlist curation services for Spotify which feature their own artists and music (see “The Secret Lives of Playlists” for further reading); (4) branded playlists use popular songs to maximize their audience and gain more listeners to promote their brand.
The current “pro-rata” payment model used by Spotify also favors the most streamed tracks. The total amount of revenue from user fees and advertising are distributed relative to the listening times of all songs on the platform, and these listening times are usually concentrated at the top (see “Streaming: pro-rata vs user-centric distribution models” for further reading). According to The Trichodist’s report, as of January 2018, Spotify’s average payout was estimated at around PHP 0.21 per stream. This means that it takes 476 plays of one song just to earn PHP 100.00, which is still distributed to the different right holders of the song, leaving the tiniest of payouts for the artist.
Spotify also offers no avenue for conversation, which is what independent musicians rely on to build their fanbase and connect with their community. Bandcamp and Soundcloud are music streaming platforms that allow communication through comments and direct messages, making it easy to grow an organic relationship between artists and their listeners. Bandcamp is well-known for it’s high payout and offers artists the option to sell digital and physical copies of their albums, promote upcoming shows, and even sell merchandise. Meanwhile, Soundcloud, despite being notorious for being hard to monetize, offers a more accessible interface with a music feed reminiscent of social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, making it easier to share music and track engagement. But although these streaming platforms exist, the number of active users are significantly dwarfed by Spotify (100 million for Bandcamp in 2016 according to the Bandcamp 2016 Year In Review and 76 million for Soundcloud in 2017 according to their homepage for advertising).
So where does that leave us? With the influence of major record labels continuously growing and the algorithmic nature of streaming giants like Spotify supporting them, independent musicians are at a clear disadvantage. Artist-friendly alternatives like Bandcamp and Soundcloud do exist, but these are not the preferred option for music streaming by majority of users. Music has become a commodity supplied by major labels, and streaming giants like Spotify are selling us the convenience of automated playlists and music recommendations.
This may seem like the end of independent music but it isn’t. Music doesn’t exist in the digital space alone, and as music fans, all that’s left for us is to find the best ways of supporting independent musicians not only online, but offline as well. Listening to your favorite independent artists on streaming platforms may increase their payout and sharing their material online can give them the exposure they need, but supporting live shows and buying their music and merchandise remain the best way to help them earn what they need to keep making music. Independent music grows with the communities that support it, so keep the conversation going, infect other people with your enthusiasm, and don’t forget to go to gigs and show your support.
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