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Fighting Spotify

As musicians struggle through the pandemic, attention has turned to the exploitative practices of Spotify – which often pays as little as $0.00318 per stream. Now, artists are unionising and demanding better.

Damon Krukowski is a musician. He envisions a future where all digital music, including his own, is free to access and listen to. Crucially, though, no one would profit from it. ‘Once they’re profiting, that’s piracy. And Spotify is essentially a legal version of piracy, as far as I’m concerned,’ he says on our Zoom call.

Krukowski’s view that all digital music should be free is a somewhat controversial one to hold; one, he admits, that can ‘frustrate or even anger a lot of people in the music industry, who are busy defending their intellectual property.’ Streaming platforms have long been criticised by members of the music industry who argue that their business models have all but decimated income musicians would traditionally have received from album sales.

Public attention to this issue seems to have grown in a year where music artists have been cut off from a vital source of income—the sale of live concert tickets—due to the pandemic. Earlier this month, Spotify Wrapped posts began flooding social media feeds, quickly instigating backlash. The platform’s critics (rightly) point out that very little of the subscription fee one pays to Spotify actually makes it back into the pockets of the artists featured on the Wrapped ‘Most Streamed’ lists.

For every other Wrapped post on Twitter, there seemed to be another highlighting how the streaming platform, on average, only pays about $0.00318 per stream to those whose music is on the platform. How little artists (particularly lesser streamed ones) make from streaming is exacerbated by a pro-rata model, which means that revenue is distributed to artists based on their proportion of total streams.

In an essay for The Baffler critiquing Spotify’s Wrapped campaign, music critic Liz Pelly wrote that Spotify’s product ‘is fully built on exploited labour.’ Singer Fiona Apple summed up what this meant in real terms in a recent interview with Pitchfork, saying: ‘I know I make less than [Spotify] do off of work that I do, and I’ve never met them, and they don’t do shit for me.’ The backlash to the Wrapped campaign online, in some senses, perceived this exploitation. Not only did it perceive and highlight it, it sought to rectify it – largely by encouraging Spotify users and music fans to buy music directly from artists via Bandcamp, and merchandise from their online stores.

Spotify is not the first tech company to be accused of exploitation, and it certainly will not be the last. There has been growing acknowledgement that large-scale tech companies employ nefarious tactics to grow and squash any and all discernible competition; among these, the concerted undervaluing and exploiting of labour have been consistent across the board. Criticism of this exploitation is frequently voiced online, but so often this criticism is followed by calls—as in the recent case of Spotify—to do one of two things.

Either one is asked to change a consumption habit (don’t buy from Amazon!) and swap it for something more ethical (shop independent!), or one is told to spend a bit more money in ‘off-setting’ the exploitation (make sure to tip your Uber driver generously!). Both are examples of individualised modes of action, and underlined by the belief that an individual consumer has the power to effect change through their consumption choices.

But this mode of thinking and action fails to see exploitation of labour as a symptom of a larger disease that needs attention. In Spotify’s case, asking fans to foot the shortfall of artists’ incomes looks at the problem too narrowly, treating artists as charity cases, rather than thinking critically about how a capitalist system and ethos has produced this set of circumstances, and what might need to be done to challenge the system itself.

The belief that individuals, by themselves, have any meaningful power is also misguided. It is wrong to place the responsibility of rectifying large scale exploitation on consumers, when an organisation much larger, much stronger, and with much bigger pockets than us, ultimately holds that responsibility. If the problem we’re trying to solve is Spotify’s unfair treatment and remuneration of music artists—its exploitation, so to speak—then any action in support or solidarity of artists should focus on demanding that Spotify themselves offer artists better royalties.

This is exactly what Justice at Spotify, a campaign launched by the Union of Musicians and Workers (UMAW) earlier this year, is doing. UMAW was set up by a number of musicians in May, and its stated aims are to ‘organise music workers to fight for a more just music industry, and to join with other workers in the struggle for a better society.’

Krukowski was one of UMAW’s earliest members; although he believes that digital music should ultimately be free, he also holds that while Spotify profits off of artists’ labour, they should compensate that labour appropriately. Justice at Spotify was launched in October and articulates a number of demands, most notably that the platform raise its royalty rate to a penny-per-stream, and that it adopt a user-centric payment model, which would distribute streaming earnings more equitably amongst artists. At the time of writing, their demands have been signed onto by over 26,000 artists in the industry.

Where Justice at Spotify is somewhat unique is in its insistence that Spotify themselves should be responsible for rectifying the inequality and exploitation of streaming models. Spotify Unwrapped, an educational campaign mimicking the original Spotify Wrapped format, exemplifies this principle, and serves as an important corrective to the usual proposals for individual modes of action that tend to emerge and be promoted online; the second last slide of its deck reads, ‘A year like 2020 required backup. Musicians have not received any from Spotify. Tell them to make a change by sharing Justice at Spotify.’

Justice at Spotify does not ask music listeners to buy merchandise or to switch to Bandcamp. Nor does it ask music listeners to stop using Spotify. “When you talk to people who are angry at Spotify, a quick thing they say is ‘boycott,’’ Krukowski says, explaining these strategic choices. ‘That’s a classic labour organising tactic, but it’s not one that you necessarily employ right away. And it’s also one you can’t employ without unity. It’s like a strike. You really need unity before you strike.’

And a lack of unity is the most obvious problem with individualised modes of action rooted in ethical consumerism and consumption; thus, UMAW’s campaign is geared towards educating people on Spotify’s remuneration practices, and gathering support for their demands from artists and listeners alike.

Collective organisation has been important in other ways for UMAW’s members, too. It has allowed the group to move the conversation on Spotify in a new direction and outline what they want in material terms. Krukowski says that Justice at Spotify has received criticism from some camps on the Left, who argue that it is futile to demand anything from the streaming giant; but in his view, ‘even by formulating the demands, you’re changing the conversation. That alone is a seizing of power.’

It has also allowed the group to frame the injustices they face in a more useful way. A larger, overarching goal of Justice at Spotify, and UMAW’s activities more broadly, has been to have musicians recognised as workers. ‘In the traditional [labour struggle] manner, we are starting with injustice at the workplace, the workplace being Spotify, for so many of us. And the injustice is very obvious to people,’ Krukowski says.

Drawing parallels with Uber and Lyft drivers, he argues that the problems affecting gig economy workers are similar to those currently affecting musicians, and yet musicians have for so long been excluded from the conversation. ‘The gig economy is an anti-labour model where workers are denied healthcare and benefits from their employers. They’re not even acknowledged as employees. And there are big fights about this […] but they never include musicians in this conversation. But of course, where does the word ‘gig’ even come from? As far as I know, we invented that. We are all gig workers, that is what musicians are,’ he says.

UMAW’s organisation and action thus far has been both ambitious and strategic. Too often, online ‘activism’ is neither; indeed, one of the biggest failures of this era has been the normalising of the idea that individual acts—like tipping the Uber driver, or buying independent—can substitute meaningful political action against capitalist forces.

It has fostered complacency and, perhaps more dangerously, an inability to see political action as something that requires collective organisation. Going forward, it would do us well to transcend this limited thinking, to imagine how we might come together, and to allow ourselves to make more radical demands.