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In a year that has hit the live-music industry particularly hard, with few concerts being safe to take place, putting the livelihood of those usually employed in the industry at risk, tempers have been inflamed by comments made by Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. In an interview with website Music Ally, he suggested a necessity for artists to change the way they produce and release music in order to gain more revenue, stating that artists ‘can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough’ and that those suffering from streaming profits are ‘people who want to release music the way it used to be’. He then emphasised that nowadays profits are driven by ‘keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans’.
At first, it is easy to take a knee jerk reaction of anger at the comments: firstly, what authority does a tech entrepreneur have to tell artists how to produce their art? After all, the current two highest rated albums of the year according to critics on review aggregating site Metacritic are Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, both of which arrive as the first studio albums of original songs since 2012 for both artists, a length of time which one could argue has been used to invest greater time into the refinement of the music. Secondly, is there not perhaps a disconnect between Ek having a net worth of over $4 billion, and the many artists who feel they aren’t being paid enough?
In the same interview, Ek praises Taylor Swift’s Folklore, one of the year’s best-selling albums, which, in coming less than a year after her previous album, seems to reinforce his comments. Other than the underlying irony of this given Swift’s previous well-documented grievances over how much Spotify pays artists, the fact that this is an example of a success from a singer who was a big-name prior to streaming services, makes it not representative of the many new artists that Spotify claims to allow to live off their music.
Yet, perhaps in context, he has a point. The way that we consume music has changed. For those that pay £10 a month for Spotify allowing access to as many new and old releases as they want during that time, why spend the same amount on one album at the time? Recently, American musician Phil Elverum resurrected his cult folk project The Microphones for a one-off album which he has refused to release on streaming sites, claiming on Twitter that he ‘deserves to be compensated’. This seems like a fair strategy and one could lead to greater acts of protest, but one has to wonder whether non-fans curious about the album will pay the price or just move on to one of the many other albums released each week on streaming.
While much of Ek’s controversy likely stems from the fact that ultimately artists should feel comfortable to take the time necessary to release the best music possible, if we are to direct any anger at him, then we should also reflect on how we are creating a landscape for music which reflects his comments. Like it or not, Ek is likely correct with his comments, so perhaps we should be thinking about how we can better support artists during these uncertain times. Options can include buying their albums from services that give artists a sizable portion of the proceeds such as Bandcamp; buying merchandise from their online shops; smaller artists may even have PayPal pages which one can donate directly to. We are extremely privileged to have access to services which allow access to almost the entirety of musical history at the touch of a finger, and by all means, we should go on using them, but perhaps we should also remember that our favourite artists aren’t just resources but humans too.