Spotify Has Poisoned the Entire Ecosystem of Music

Trigger alert: Here's a long-promised short rant about the streaming service

In an unguarded moment the other day, I accidentally stumbled onto that interview with Spotify founder Daniel Ek from last August. You’ll likely remember (if not, go here.) It’s the one where Ek (net worth: $4 billion) chided recording artists for not getting with the paradigm his streaming service has imposed on the music business.

Dismissing artist complaints about Spotify’s royalty structure as a “narrative fallacy,” Ek told the website Music Ally “Obviously, some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough.”

Artists and the wider community of music lovers were, predictably, enraged by this. Revisiting the entire piece (because, hey, I’m a glutton for punishment), I was struck not only by Ek’s pronoun usage (“artists that”  not artists who, a dehumanizing tell if there ever was), but the way he pivoted, seamlessly, from lecturing creators like a boot-camp commander to making gauzy self-congratulatory statements about the New Frontier Spotify had created. Offering no statistics, he talked about how “how more and more artists are breaking through in a big way” and then asserted, in the meaningless language found in countless Internet corporations’ annual reports, that these newly enabled artists were “being impactful and creating new fan relationships.”

Isn’t that awesome? At least he didn’t say artists were breaking through bigly.

On the second read, Ek’s quotes hit me differently. At the time they seemed just plain arrogant. Now they register as dangerously arrogant. Out of bounds. Here, for the first time in the history of recorded music, is a businessman who feels it’s his right – no, his duty – to tell artists how to do their work, and on what schedule. Like they’re making widgets. And if they don’t do it his way, they’re (obviously) irrelevant. Behind the times.

What does this mindset tell us? Many things and one thing: That Spotify does not, on a fundamental level, see reason to care about the longterm future of the artform. The artform that is the reason for its existence.

We’ve known this, of course. It’s obvious from the way the service uses its algorithms, the way it keeps score. But it’s also evident in the way Spotify doesn’t bother to expand the horizons of its users. Here we have an operation built around a massive database that still hasn’t figured out how to celebrate and contextualize the richness of its holdings.

As a conduit for artistic work, Spotify is a failed mess, a giant warehouse with stuff piled everywhere and nobody with a clue where anything is. That’s bad business when you’re selling widgets; downright shameful when you’re brokering art.

If the wizards of Spotify bothered to think beyond quarterly earnings, they would see Ek’s antagonistic statements (and the company-wide business tactics that trample the well-being of artists) as a stormcloud of danger lurking on the horizon. It’s generally not a good idea for a business to disenfranchise its suppliers, but that’s what Spotify does. Every day. It has poisoned the entire ecosystem of music.

And as a result, there’s a looming supply side crisis ahead: One direct result of Spotify’s current attitude will be a steady thinning of the ranks of people willing to play on Spotify’s terms. Because it’s no fun to work for a boss whose response to everything is “You’re not producing enough!” Because the recent protests against Spotify’s payment system are gaining energy globally. And, most crucially, because the people feeding Spotify’s pipe with content are not doing it for the measly revenue anyway; by the time their wares are ready to reach the marketplace, artists must have already functioned as managers, booking agents, promoters, publicists, lawyers, artist-development gurus and a bunch of other jobs besides.

It won’t be long before those justifiably beleaguered artists look at Spotify and decide that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. The only way that changes is if Spotify undergoes a soul transplant followed by an extreme makeover followed by many public acts of contrition. Anything less is not enough.

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