Freedom To Listen, or why ST Was Wrong To Leave Spotify

>20111119-095040.jpgA lot of hablab in the press over the past couple of weeks about artists leaving Spotify. Coldplay (no tears shed there) and Tom Waits (wail of dispair) both denied the service new albums, citing the old saw of wanting people to listen to the works as a whole. We’ve seen through that one for a while. Both records are available on iTunes for you to buy as little or as much as you want.

But in a new development last week STHoldings, distributor of over 200 grime and bass labels pulled all it’s content from Spotify, claiming it was eating into their iTunes profit. The press release also quoted the head of one label, who said “Keep music special. Fuck Spotify.”

Here we go again. There was honk and wail last year about how little Spotify paid compared to other services, based on the most part on inaccurate readings of the available data, and unfair comparisons of like for like services. Producer Jon Hopkins complained recently that he gets £8 for 90,000 plays on Spotify, compared to £50 for a single Radio 1 spin. But on a listener to listener basis, that means the station actually pays £4.50 for 90,000 people accessing the track. Different delivery vector, different maths apply.

Sums aside, there’s another aspect to Spotify that ST simply aren’t getting. I’m a long-time user and advocate of the paid subscriber model, and the biggest advantage for me is the way it allows me to discover new music. As a voracious reader of blogs and sites like The Quietus, Paste and Pitchfork, and by following the playlists and recommendations of my friends, I’m always finding new and interesting sounds. If I like what I hear I’ll keep listening. Over a period of time that means that my favourite tracks will generate more for the artist or label than a one-time download would.

Sadly, by pulling their content, ST have made sure that can never happen. I simply don’t have the cash to take a financial punt on music I know nothing about and might not like. Who knows, there’s an artist on one of ST’s labels that could be my new favourite. Now, I’ll never know.

Yes, I know, I’m being disingenuous. One look at my Last.FM playlist and you’d know that the likelihood of me becoming a big grime fan are slim to nil. But the fact remains that I do listen to a lot of new music through Spotify, and that keeps me well away from illegal downloads. I pay for my music. I like the convenience and broad range that Spotify offer, and I’m not going back to the old model.

The quote about keeping music special is equally mealy-mouthed to my mind. I assume that none of ST’s artists have a problem with being played on the radio or via a PRS licence in shops where they’ll be very much a background to other activity.

No, it’s all about getting paid. Same as it ever was. ST saw a blip in their revenue stream and panicked. It strikes me as incredibly short sighted. For one thing, Spotify are about to launch on Virgin Cable, opening the platform up to millions of new listeners. For another, as Andy Malt points out in his excellent editorial for CMU, getting money from Spotify is a long-tail deal. You will get decent revenue, but it takes time.

I’m not saying Spotify is pure as the driven snow, of course. They’re very secretive about how much they pay on a per-stream basis, and the major’s new-found enthusiasm for the platform gets the old Spidey-sense tingling.

But it’s a new marketplace, with new rules and new opportunities. A savvy producer needs to understand this, and realise that loss of revenue from one outlet doesn’t necessarily mean gains in another. Streaming music services are part of that marketplace, like it or not. I wonder how carefully ST rolled the numbers to see how closely streaming service pickup correlated to the drop in iTunes revenue. If, as I suspect, the two aren’t connected, then they’ve just shot themselves in the foot. Generating publicity while at the same time cutting off access to your product is no way to develop new business.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some spooktronica, Norwegian grindcore and a refreshing blast of free jazz to check out. Oh, Spotify, you big fat enabler, you.


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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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