Why Independent Artists Cannot Get Noticed on Spotify ? 5 Shady Tricks Used To Rig Competition.

The more MGNS. digs into Spotify’s practices, the shadier their business appears. Among victims of their cynical business model, no doubt the most harmed are indie artists that get both spolied and morally crushed.

Tangui Pincon
Feb 13 · 12 min read

In my previous Spotify story, I explained how Daniel Ek, innocent until proven guilty, may have stolen billions of dollars from investors and withholds money of right holders trying to derive legitimate profit from royalty pools abitrage.

If you’re an artist, you probably don’t care about Spotify Technology SA stock and may even hate me for running a conglomerate where companies stream 24/7 on Spotify content whose rights belong to other affiliated companies.

What you don’t know is that we intended and tried to pivot to a business model where people would actually listen to the music getting streamed (to be honest primarily because we wouldn’t have to pay the Premium accounts used to stream our content anymore, the publishing of great content would just have been incidental). For instance, we built playlists with short tracks alternating calm piano tunes, relaxing sounds and stories counted ASMR-style. People would fall asleep to this material and stay asleep while we would rack up hundreds of Royalty Bearing Plays. We failed, and kept failing every time we attempted to get significant revenue from plays on innovative materials.

When businesses like us cannot get significant plays on content specifically designed to rack up streams despite investing much more money advertising it through Instragram or Facebook than an independent artist can afford to spend on its whole project, the game is so rigged that independent artists doesn’t have a single chance to get noticed.

MGNS. got communication from the SEC last Friday of distribution contracts between Spotify and major right holders such as Sony Music Entertainment. Spotify tried to keep away artists and investors from accessing these documents invoking business secrecy but the real reason is that they’re full of unfair clauses (that MGNS. will challenge in front of EU Competition Authorities) rigging the game in the most nefarious ways you can think of.

Any of these clauses would be pretty much sufficient alone to crush the carreer and hopes of all independent artists, so I’ll juste take the exemple of the clause below where Spotify commits to demote or takedown content competing with Sony’s (and Vivendi’s and Warner’s through a mechanism called MFN -stands for Most Favoured Nation- making favorable clauses negociated by one of them applicable to the others but not to indies)

What’s a demotion ? It’s a takedown you don’t notice because your content still appears if you specifically search for it or use a direct link. You’re probably demoted (because, you know, not competing with Sony or Vivendi when releasing recorded music is pretty much impossible) but as you not able to see it, you’ll just keep thinking that you get so few plays because you’re talentless or not talented enough to get noticed in a highly competitive field.

Artist pages are rigged

When Piaf recorded for the first time in a studio La Vie en Rose, Columbia (Sony) was granted a legitimate 50-year monopoly on the exploitation of this specific recording, Piaf a lifetime monopoly on mechanical rights (plays from her songs including covers) and her estate a 50-year monopoly on mechanical rights after her death. Piaf and her estate hold an eternal monopoly on moral rights. Under these rules:

  • Since 1997, I can release an album named La vie en rose including this song and other Piaf hits from 1947 without paying royalties to Sony nor asking their permission
  • Since 2013 I can publish the very same album without paying royalties to anyone or needing any person since Piaf died in 1963
  • I’ll never have the right to use a picture of Piaf on the cover without permission from her estate, nor attempt her reputation by publishing an compilation named 15 forgettable songs from Edith Piaf, the overrated whore

All this is pretty fair, but if you happen to be Sony Music Entertainment, you would like to keep all revenues from streams of La vie en rose despite other albums feature the track, which is precisely what Spotify does by excluding these competing releases from Piaf’s artist page.

Search is rigged

At this point, you may think this is not that unfair to independent artists, because the only parties harmed are businesses trying to make money from musical heritage. You would be wrong, because the consequences of this demotion are much worse than simply awarding an illegitimate monopoly to big labels. Ask yourself if the following scenario is just about greedy entrepreneurs not getting as much money as they could :

I’m a huge fan of Georges Lang, French disk-jockey that dedicated most of his life to American music. I discovered Les nocturnes -show where he plays and comments great oldies all through the night- a few years ago when I was nearly broke and drove for Uber every night from 8pm to 7am to keep my business afloat. I owe him most of my musical culture and he helped my overcome this rather difficult part of my life.

Let’s imagine the radio station RTL wants to push him slowly to retirement and reduces his air time year after year. George may try to fulfill his need for sharing and curating the music he loves by publishing compilations of oldies.

That’s what he actually did, but you won’t find it on Spotify because it’s demoted. And because it’s demoted, he cannot promote covers or old-style from independents artists like he does in another of his radio shows WRTL Country.

Being the one that made me discover most Motown classic - like hundred thousands if not millions of French — I would be prone to seek among the results of a search on Spotify for ‘The same old song’ the one that will make him earn some money. But, you know, it’s demoted so I can only pick the one that will make Vivendi’s shareholders earn more money.

Algorithmic radio is rigged

On Apple Music, when the end of The same old song would have been reached, music would either stop playing or loop on this song. But Spotify considers I would rather get stuck in a virtually endless loop of content from Vivendi. So at the end the song, they will launch an algorithmic radio that they’re so sure I’ll love that I can’t even go back to the song I asked for in the first place and play it a second time without exiting the radio and typing my request again.

The non-Vivendi track proves how relevant this seemingly based on similar tracks this radio is (as far I know, the Four Tops are not the Village People nor gay idols — do not hesitate to comment if I missed an obvious connection).

Home tab is rigged

On Apple Music, your our home tab feed is made of albums you chose to add to your library, starting from the latest. Writing this article, I realized how much better it is to be welcomed by content you chose than having a rigged home screen that most of the time, you’ll be too lazy to bypass, engaging you in an endless loop of the content Spotify wants you to hear. Laziness is actually the only reason I use Spotify, because it’s easier to stream to non-Apple speakers from Spotify than from Apple Music. But that feature comes at a very high price : the right of choosing the music you listen to. Opening the Spotify app is pretty much just turning on the radio.

I checked who were my 20 most listened artists on Apple Music : Alphaville, Benjamin Biolay, Booba, Boulevard des Airs, Demis Roussos, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, JH Floyd, Joe Dassin, Johnny Hallyday, La Fouine, MGMT, Michel Sardou, M.I.L.K, Orelsan, Phoenix, Pierre Bachelet, Ratatat, Serge Gainsbourg, Talking Heads and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs

Pretty eclectic. Now look at my Spotify home tab 6 months after I switched from Apple Music:

  • Fan of La Fouine indeed, but that just a mere pretext for getting me into radio or playlist filled that will be 80%+ filled with rap from Vivendi.
  • “Best of artists” => Spend the next 2 hours listening content coming only from Vivendi artists
  • “For fans of Aya Nakamura” : I’m no fan of Aya Nakamura, I just said once as a joke in a discussion about Vivendi’s astroturfing “Alexa, play Djadja from Aya Nakamura” and never engaged on her content willingly except this time, but she’s probably among my most listened artists on Spotify anyway considered how often her tracks are played in “algorithmic” radio or playlists.
  • “Future Hits” => Another 80%+ Vivendi playlist
  • Popular new releases => 2 albums from Vivendi, including one by Claire Luciani, seemingly a pop singer which I never heard of before
  • “For fans of Damso’ => I listen quite often to Damso and mostly enjoy it, but I would not call myself a fan of his content, more someone lazy so used to be exposed to his music several times a day that he doesn’t skip it because I don’t dislike it.
  • Damso-related recommendation : radio and playlist made at 80%+ of Vivendi content, again
  • New releases for you => At least, something related to my listening history that is a suggestion I enjoy as I didn’t know that the Pet Shop Boys (Sony) released a new album but without scrolling that low to make screenshots, I would never have known it and all I could have listened to is rap mostly from Vivendi artists.

Except if I specifically search for content, all I can listen to on Spotify is music I would have heard by turning on the radio in my car, if all FM radios were censored except the urban/youth ones.

Making me less likely to discover independent artists than on the most commercials of radios is not what I expected when subscribing to Spotify, but their service is rigged in such ways that it is the only likely outcome.

Playlists are rigged (and most likely payola)

Finally, let’s have a look at curated playlists. Take “Punchliners”, which seems to stand for a space where I’ll discover some conscious rap.

Again 3 pages of scrolling are needed to find indie content (indie meaning in this context from a label with 100 employees affiliated to Merlin).

I know Spotify for Artists allows independent artists to submit their tracks for curator consideration for a few months now. Did you submit some tracks ? Have they featured you ? Somewhere where you could get significant plays? Have they featured someone you know ?

I call that a rattle more than a feature, as the whole Spotify for Artists app is.

UPDATE AS OF FEBRUARY 25TH : Spotify’s home tab now openly promotes playlists fully made of songs whose rights are 100% owned by Vivendi. But as they disclose they picked this content against retribution (‘announcement’ in the right-up corner) and the identity of the announcer (Digster = Vivendi), it’s not payola from a legal point of view.

Why did Vivendi choose to brand their playlists as “Digster” instead of “Universal Playlists” or “UMG Picks” ? The answer “to mislead users” is appealing but circonstancial.

Right holders that Spotify have some consideration for are given access to another version of the app, one with APIs they can query to know everything about their listeners’ behavior (and your listeners’ behavior), ask for demotion of whatever content they consider competing with theirs, and much more. A few days after the end of each month, they also access extensive data about the previous month’s streams and just have to send an invoice to Spotify to get paid a few days later; when you wait several months without being able to reliably figure out what you’ll get paid or even if they’ll ever pay you.

I honestly didn’t though their policies were that nefarious because rigging what get plays and how artists are paid is not only illegal under EU Law, it’s a dream crusher for thousands of artists that will doubt of their talent given they have several thousand times less plays than those of major record labels and eventually give up without understanding that Ek is cynical and greedy enough to entertain their hope of getting noticed despite his platform makes them less even likely to grow an audience than if they were sending copies of their records to a radio station.

As neither class actions nor giving legal advice to the public is allowed under EU law, please continue reading only if you are considering in your own judgment that Spotify AB, a company located in the EU, owes you remedies for the distorted competition that resolved from the worldwide distribution US law contracts they have concluded in bad faith with US companies. This might be the be the case of :

  • Non-Swedish EU citizens or EU companies
  • Who published (or attempted to published) at least one track and made it (or tried to make it) available on Spotify through an aggregator such as Distrokid, CD Baby or TuneCore who didn’t disclose them the terms under which their content would be distributed on Spotify
  • Who intended to derive legitimate profits from this content
  • Who believed that the amount paid for use of their recordings was based on a fair and transparent split of the royalty pools (at least for EU markets) ie. count of Royalty Bearing Plays on their content / total count of Royalty Bearing Plays
  • Who consider that not featuring (or featuring less that competing content) their content in search results, artist pages, home tab and algorithmic playlists unfairly limited their ability to derive such profit
  • Who consider that it was reasonable for Sony Music Entertainment to bargain entering a contract to include their recordings in Spotify’s catalog at conditions favorable to them and (presumably) legal under US law, but that Spotify could have fulfilled Sony’s expectations in ways that wouldn’t have affected revenue they would derive from their content
  • Who consider that Spotify AB, EU company, defrauded deliberately independent artists such as them by entering a contract in absolute bad faith, without requesting their consent although they knew it could be ruled as unfair under EU law given the damages they would suffer from this contract

Although it may be expensive to go to court in your Member State, you should know that you can file a case directly to the executive branch of the EU government, for free, without being represented by an attorney nor having to plea, because the European Commission can help you by standing in your behalf in disputes arisen from violation of EU law by a company from another Member State than yours (if you weren’t aware of this, learn about the EU from europa.eu : knowing your rights and the EU institutions will enable you to vote meaningfully on May 23rd instead of blindly go with the party you voted at last national elections like most European citizens do).

President Juncker holds in high regards freedom and fairness in competition and made the Digital Single Market one of the top priorities of his term in office.

He even gave Andrus Ansip, « Minister » (EU Commissioner) for Digital Single Market, the honorary title of Vice-President of the European Commission.

Despite supporting another party than Juncker’s, I recognize that the current Commission did an outstanding job defending EU Citizens willing to exercise their freedom to start and run a business, thus I strongly believe that the EC will stand behind you in this case.

MGNS. is currently filing a case against Spotify with several EU competition authorities and, if I’m not allowed to provide you with such thing as a template for raising complaints against Spotify, I’ll be more than happy to send a copy of, say, a draft with some blanks of the requests of remedies that MGNS. affiliates will present to authorities with the legal grounds of these claims.

I’ll expect to roll that on March 1st, you can contact me here or by mail at tpincon[@]mgns.co, I will be more than happy to help you get relief from damages Spotify caused to you, and independent artists as a whole.

Tangui Pincon

Written by

Chief Executive and Positive Impact Officer at MGNS.

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