In the Garage

Spotify vs. Taylor Swift vs. The Listener

November 08, 2014 | 7 Minute Read

I know that recently I've been posting a lot about moving to Shanghai, but with the news going on regarding Taylor Swift pulling her music from Spotify, I needed to throw my two cents into the conversation and go back to talking about pop culture. So bear with me.

In case you're living under a rock (or in my case, living in China and a bit far removed from western pop culture news), Taylor Swift released her fifth album this week, 1989. However, the album isn't on Spotify; in fact, she pulled her entire catalog from the streaming service except for one song. She explained:

"In my opinion, the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace. Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently."

Even so, her album is setting records, her decision to keep her music off Spotify is being intensely debated, and basically, you can't escape Taylor Swift in the media.

As a free Spotify user, I'm torn. I don't actually listen to Taylor Swift, and, wanting to know what the hype was about, I checked out the first single off 1989, "Shake It Off." (I keep thinking it should be "Take It Off," but then I remember that was from The Donnas.) Because I can't listen to it on Spotify, I decided to turn to Vevo and watch her music video, which I happily discovered was directed by Mark Romanek:

The thing is, I don't think any struggling musician or band would be able to simply write off Spotify as an option and just pull their music from the service. Streaming services offer bands a chance to find a new audience that normally wouldn't be accessible to them. Someone like Taylor Swift who has a worldwide audience doesn't need Spotify, and sales of 1989 prove that. In her quote above, she says that the value of an album is based on both the amount of "heart and soul" an artist puts into it and the financial value that is placed on the music. I don't think she is saying that artists who allow their music to be on Spotify put any less effort into their music than she does, but she has the luxury of being able to choose not to share her music with streaming services.

According to this Time article, artists receive less than 1 cent per streamed play -- between $0.006 and $0.0084. It may not be much, but it can add up when you're Taylor Swift and getting millions of streams per day. For the average band, it's not much.

I think part of the problem is that as consumers, we have grown accustomed to the idea that music "is" and "should be" free. Even 30 years ago when radio played a dominant role in how music was heard, people would tune in and not have to pay a dime for listening to it on the radio. To own that single or album, listeners would actually have to go out and buy a physical record, cassette, or CD. Now with digital technology, music is not something tangible. It is just bits of data saved on a computer, a phone, a tablet, an iPod, whatever. There's no work involved with getting music because everything is just a click away. Music is everywhere you go. Remember the days of actually having to choose which CDs or cassettes you wanted to bring with you and not being able to bring your whole collection of music with you on a ten-hour flight? Data is cheap or free (see cloud services like Dropbox and Google Drive) and music is now just another form of data.

Taylor Swift pulling her music from Spotify isn't going to solve anything. It sure is making a statement, but in the long run, it's not sustainable. If all artists pulled their music from streaming services, piracy would run rampant, which it does anyway. Nothing will change until consumers' attitudes change. We need to be convinced that we should pay for the music and that it's worth paying for it. I personally still buy music and I've actually gone back to buying vinyl recently since many albums come with an additional digital download. I'm more willing to shell out my money if I get both vinyl and digital copies of the album, and no, I don't share my music. Here's two of the albums I bought recently (my most recent purchases are still in Germany while I am here in China):


I actually bought these albums specifically through the Pledgemusiccampaigns from OK Go and Weezer. Campaigns like these ones make me feel like I'm buying an experience. I'm not just getting the music, but I get the run up to it -- exclusive updates from the band/artist in the form of images and video, access to MP3s before the release, whatever. Some bands have done some really brilliant campaigns and have exclusives like signed albums, special experiences to meet the band, the chance to get your favorite artist to record your voicemail greeting. One of my favorite bands from high school, Nerf Herder, even offered the chance to sing on their album and record in the Lucasfilm Studios. I want to pay for the music because it's an experience. It's not just some digital file that's not tangible. Sure, experiences are just as non-physical as an MP3, FLAC, or WAV, but I think it's something people would be more willing to pay for. Look at this way -- people still go to concerts where they can experience the music, in spite of a steep ticket price. They may bitch and complain about it being a rip-off, but they still go.

Basically it comes down to this: both the distributors and the artists themselves can't keep thinking about the music industry like it was 30 years ago. It's not working and it won't work. Musicians need to be more creative so that consumers want to pay for the music. Pulling music from Spotify or Pandora or other streaming services will only drive people away from getting the music legally. In Taylor Swift's case, many people have bought her album, but how many more people who would've listened to her music on Spotify are now just downloading it (illegally or otherwise) elsewhere?

I was discussing this on Facebook with some high school classmates, and one had the perfect Brian Eno quote to sum this up (thanks, Adam!):

"I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for awhile were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time...

It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you'd be stuck with your whale blubber.

Sorry mate – history's moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it."