On Monday, March 15, the Union Of Musicians And Allied Workers held demonstrations at Spotify offices in more than 30 cities around the world, including nearly a dozen US locations. A press release from UMAW details their grievances and demands:
“The action is an escalation of UMAW’s Justice at Spotify campaign, first launched in October, 2020. Now signed by more than 27,000 music workers, the campaign calls for at least one cent per stream, the adoption of a user centric streaming model, the crediting of all labor on recordings, the end of payola, the end of Spotify’s anti-artist legal battles, and increased transparency over the company’s payments, algorithms, and data-collection systems. Spotify currently pays some $0.0038 per stream — among the lowest rates of any streaming company — operates entirely behind closed doors, and has sued songwriters to lower royalty rates.
As Spotify has refused to respond to Justice at Spotify, protestors are delivering the campaign’s demands directly to the company. The protests will be the first time music workers have taken collective in-person action against a tech company, and the first time music workers have coordinated a labor action internationally.”
Most of that is pretty straightforward, but the “payola” bit may warrant some explanation, in part because that term has faded from the public consciousness a bit since the days of terrestrial radio. The context and the word itself might give enough clues to get the basic idea if you’re not familiar with it, but it originated as a term for the bribing of DJ’s in order to promote certain tracks on the radio, which was illegal. In Spotify’s case, they’re doing a sort of “reverse payola,” which allows labels and artists “to influence listener recommendations at no upfront cost,” as long as they are willing to accept an even lower “promotional recording royalty rate” for those plays. Also, note that the $0.0038 per stream is not across-the-board, it’s more like an average. The royalty rate varies based at least in part on number of listens, though as UMAW points out, Spotify doesn’t disclose all of the variables.
The press release also contains a quote from UMAW organizer Mary Regalado, who spoke of how the pandemic has exacerbated the situation for artists:
“Spotify has long mistreated music workers, but the pandemic has put the exploitation into stark relief. The company has tripled in value during the pandemic, while failing to increase its payment rates to artists by even a fraction of a penny. Musicians all over the world are unemployed right now while the tech giants dominating the industry take in billions. Music work is labor, and we are asking to be paid fairly for that labor.”
It should be mentioned here that, as Digital Music News noted in their article on the payola controversy, Spotify’s “average employee salary more than doubled between 2011 and 2018, while artists’ per-stream compensation has ‘further decreased.’” CEO Daniel Ek, who once said that it’s “not enough” anymore for artists to “record music once every three to four years” if they want to make money, recently announced that, “Despite global uncertainty, it was a great year for Spotify.”
Video from Democracy Now! shows musicians and supporters rallying in snow in some places, while playing drums, and other instruments, as is befitting of the participants. As the segment draws to a close, artist Jitensha says, “Quit paying less than $0.004 per stream. We know you have the income, we know the shareholders have the income. We’ve seen the receipts.”
According to a Twitter post by UMAW sent on March 18, Spotify issued a response following the demonstrations. UMAW says:
“We are pleased that Spotify has recognized the legitimacy of UMAW and the artists around the world who are demanding better payment and treatment. However, Spotify has failed to meet any of our demands. The company consistently deflects blame onto others for systems it has itself built, and from which it has created its nearly $70 billion valuation.”
The rest of the thread explains that Spotify failed to answer any of UMAW’s questions, and “have not provided any further information on their per-stream rate at this time.”
Spotify and other players in the market like to sell themselves to artists as a way to break free from the traditional music industry, which has been notorious for offering them a raw deal. An article from music journalist Jessi Roti about the demonstration in Chicago quotes Andrew Clinkman, a member of the UMAW chapter there, and his thoughts on the way this has worked out:
“Companies like Spotify have savior complexes. They will say they’re trying to save the livelihoods of musicians everywhere and that they invented this amazing new way for musicians to make money when they really are not compensating the workers who create that content they offer.”
The article also quotes Greg Obis, co-owner of Born Yesterday Records, mastering engineer, and guitarist for the band Stuck, who makes an excellent point about the way this situation affects other parts of the industry:
“I’d been aware of this very brutal payment structure that exists in the streaming world. Seeing it from the audio engineering standpoint and the record label standpoint has been really formative. This is where the ‘AW’ (Allied Workers) of the UMAW comes in because… it’s the musicians who are paying the recording engineers, and need to go on tour and hire these people. The music industry is a whole ecosystem.”
Part of the problem with Spotify and their place in this ecosystem is that they don’t really sell music, they sell ads and listener data. In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Prof. Shoshana Zuboff points out something people often get wrong about our relationship to certain entities in the digital realm. You may have heard the saying, “If it’s free, then you’re the product.” As Prof. Zuboff describes it, we are instead “the objects of a technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw-material-extraction operation.” That is to say: your data is the product, advertisers are the customers, and you are just the raw earth that big tech companies mine data from. No offense.
In Spotify’s version of this mining operation, artists and the music they make are just another part of this data-extraction and ad-selling apparatus. Even back when the RIAA and radio conglomerates like Clear Channel ran more of the show, the selling of advertisements was a big part of the business, of which artists generally didn’t really get a fair cut — but in this new model, the artist’s agency is all but completely removed (not that it was often much better when dealing with labels either), and we’ve already covered the compensation.
Sure, you can pay to listen without ads, but Spotify is still collecting and selling your data, and charging you for the privilege. Furthermore, artists (or their labels) usually have to pay to get their music on these services in the first place. Though this money goes to another middleman rather than Spotify or other streaming services themselves, it still bears consideration.
Contrary to what these companies would like you to believe, the only ones getting a good deal here are the streaming executives and advertisers, just like the old days. When Spotify has the money to throw around for a $100 million “exclusive deal” with Joe Rogan, it shouldn’t be too much to ask for a better deal for the artists who make that possible, especially after building that business on their backs.
Ever wondered how many Spotify streams an artist needs per month to earn minimum wage? — by Ashley King in Digital Music News
Spotify’s Daniel Ek wants artists to pump out ‘content’? That’s no way to make the next OK Computer — by Mark Beaumont in NME
Interview with UMAW’s Joe DeGeorge — by Chris Hues in Boston Hassle
Disclosure: I am also a musician with recordings on Spotify myself, though not personally a member of UMAW.