Does Listening to Non-Russian Music Pay for Russian Bombs?
As Russia invaded Ukraine I decided to stop listening to Russian music on Spotify. I didn’t listen to many Russian artists, though I have a few in my library. And even though most of my favorites turned out to be decent people trying to help Ukraine like Oxxxymiron or Noize MC, I still temporarily stopped listening to their stuff — I presume, they still have to pay taxes from royalties into the Russian budget and therefore fund those bombs.
I also started listening to more Ukrainian music with hopes of increasing their royalties at least by a tiny bit.
But now I realize that there are at least two issues making my efforts somewhat meaningless or even counterproductive.
The system was always wrong but it’s even more wrong today
There’s been a lot of noise about the royalties streaming services pay per stream but, in my opinion, the per-stream amount is not the main problem. Not many know that the way those royalties are calculated was fundamentally wrong from the get-go, thanks to the collective power of the major labels and it is still wrong [almost] across the board today.
Here’s a simplified algorithm on how streaming royalties are calculated:
- Everything customers pay is placed into a pile of cash.
- The streaming service takes its cut.
- What remains is divided by the total number of streams on the service (the infamous per-stream earnings)
- Then the number is multiplied by the number of streams for each artist and transferred to the right holders.
In a nutshell, even if you never listen to, say, Taylor Swift (just picking a random very popular artist with deep catalog) some of your money still goes to Taylor just because she generates a proportionally significant number of streams.
This is upsetting in the peacetime because even if you pay, say, Spotify $10 a month and listen to just one obscure indie band, they still won’t earn $6 (or whatever the rightsholder share is). Your streaming numbers are still nothing in the grand scheme of things and when everything goes into a global pot it barely registers in the totals. So, your money primarily goes to chart-topping artists you never listen to.
I guess you can see the problem in the wartime — some part of your money goes to Russian artists no matter whether you listen to them or not.
The solution here is simple in theory — distribute my money exclusively to the artists I listen to. I’ve seen that Deezer is experimenting with this approach and maybe Tidal does that (I’m not sure). But the most popular services like Spotify and Apple Music operate under the system I’ve outlined above. And changing the system requires pitting the services against the major labels, meaning this isn’t likely to happen any time soon.
The smart algorithm is stupid
I love algorithmic playlists on Spotify. Monday with Discover Weekly and Friday with Release Radar are my favorite weekdays.
The “Release Radar” algorithm is relatively simple — it brings you the new tracks from the artists you listen to. The problem here is that I’ve listened to Russian music before, but I don’t want to listen to it now. The algorithm doesn’t know this, obviously, and you get the new Russian tracks as if everything is peachy in the world.
“Discovery Weekly” is a bit more complex. Essentially its goal is to expose you to music you don’t listen to but may like. It’s very good. No one knows how it works exactly but conceptually it picks up on your listening history and does its magic based on that. Remember I told you I’ve been listening to a lot of Ukrainian music recently? Well, half of today’s Discover Weekly is… wait for it… Russian music! How so? It’s not surprising that until recently people who listened to Ukrainian music quite often listened to Russian music as well. The algorithm made a “rational” conclusion that since I listened to a lot of Ukrainian music, I should enjoy Russian music too. It’s totally wrong at the moment yet makes total sense.
I guess the only solution here is to abandon algorithmic playlists for the time being.