Is Spotify fair to artists?

By Simon Gentry

“I had three million Spotify pays for ‘On Sunset‘. For that I made nine and a half grand in revenue. All right, it’s nine grand, but it’s not £3 million is it? Whichever f**ker thought music should be free was a marketing whizz because that genie will not go back in the bottle.”  Paul Weller talking to NME about his latest album, released in 2020.

One of the small pleasures of buying music is knowing that some of the money paid will make its way back to the artist.  Stories of artists signing lousy contracts and earning a pittance for the music they make are legion, but despite that most people hope artists are being rewarded fairly. 

In recent years the way we buy and listen to music has changed beyond recognition.  It has joined the long line of newly digital industries.  Spotify is well on the way to becoming the dominant music streaming platform, in the Anglosphere at any rate. For those who don’t know it, Spotify is a music streaming platform supported by subscriptions, and advertising for the ‘free’ version. As of the end of March, Spotify has 356 million monthly active users, including 158 million premium subscribers which generate nearly 90% of its $2.59bn turnover.  It has an almost inexhaustible amount of music from pretty much anywhere in the world. Reggae from Mozambique? No problem.  Obscure German electronica from the 1980s?  Easy, as much as you can eat.  Old music, new music, Spotify has it all.

The added ‘feel good factor’ that Spotify provides, in addition to the content, is that by listening to that tiny reggae band from Mozambique, you’re supporting them, putting a few Metical into their pockets, rewarding and sustaining them.  We’ve all heard that the amount Spotify pay artists is tiny, but it’s something, right?

A few weeks ago I decided to try to find out how much my favourite bands were actually getting.  I’d heard an interview with Björn Ulvaeus, previously of Abba, on Times Radio where he was highlighting the fact that Spotify (which also happens to be Swedish) not only pays poorly, but that others involved in creating the music, such as the song writers, often fare even worse that the performers.  The bombshell for me, however, was the revelation that artists are not treated equally on Spotify.

Unlike Spotify, when a song is played on the radio the artist, or to be more precise the person or organisation that owns the rights, gets a set amount every time the song is played, whether they be a mega-star or a garage band.  On Spotify, however, the bigger artists are paid more than the smaller ones.  So, if it wasn’t annoying enough that Spotify pays a pittance (and the actual amount is well nigh impossible to establish because it is individual to each artist), smaller bands get even an even tinier share.

I know these are issues are essentially contractual and that artists are not compelled to work with Spotify, but it does seem to me that its inherently unfair and is therefore it’s an unsustainable model.  So, the question is, what needs to be done to address this.

Tidal was an artist-owned service similar to Spotify, but it never really took off and has largely faded away.  Apple Music is a genuine rival and could help spark competition that would drive up the value of the artists, but at this point that hasn’t happened.  Maybe fans will become more vocal and will demand a more equitable share for the artists they love, threaten boycotts or find more generous alternatives.  One way or another, however, if we want music to be produced, this unsustainable model will have to be put on a fairer footing.