Finn McRedmond: Spotify has chokehold on music industry

Young vs rapacious streaming service is proxy war on not paying artists properly

In a three-way fight between the world’s most famous podcaster, the biggest streaming platform, and an aging curmudgeonly musician, who would you put your money on? I like Neil Young; Harvest is one of my favourite albums. But as he takes on Spotify and Joe Rogan, I know where to cut my losses.

This isn’t a hypothetical exercise. Last week, Young voiced his concerns with Spotify hosting the Joe Rogan Experience, a podcast with millions of listeners, on account of Rogan’s dalliances with vaccine misinformation. Young offered an ultimatum: it’s me or him. And Spotify, firmly nailing their colours to the profit-above-all-else mast, opted for Rogan and Young’s music was removed from the platform. Podcasts make a lot of money, and not that many people listen to Young anymore.

It is easy to characterise this as a row between Young and Rogan; one enlightened by science and the other clouded by ill-judged vaccine hesitancy; liberal righteousness and reactionary malevolence. But I think this is a category error, and Young versus Rogan a proxy war for a much more foundational debate.

I have little interest in defending Rogan. Though, I suspect, we are too quick to lazily caricature him as a cartoonish villain. When so many millions of people are obviously connecting with someone, our instinct should not be to decry the whole enterprise as dangerous and malignant, and its adoptees as foolish, but instead ask what it is about him that appeals so much.

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Soulless algorithms

In fact, making a bogeyman out of Rogan detracts from the real problem. Spotify is pernicious and its latest moves rapacious, but not because it pays Rogan a lot of money for exclusive rights to his podcast. Rather because it exerts excessive influence over the music industry; it does not fairly compensate its artists; it siphons its users into narrow taste brackets with soulless algorithms; and the logic of the streaming economy ultimately makes music blander, songs shorter and creators more homogenous.

If you're not on Spotify then you can kiss goodbye to a huge, ready-made listener base

Spotify’s chokehold on the entire industry is reason enough to mount protest. Artists cannot live with it: it does not pay them enough. But they cannot live without it: if you’re not on Spotify then you can kiss goodbye to a huge, ready-made listener base. It is bad for creators and it is bad for us. But it is cheap and it is convenient so any stance taken by Neil Young seems unlikely to do much to undermine its preeminence. And its deleterious effects on the music we listen to are slow and evolutionary so there is little immediate incentive to stop using it.

There have been boycotts or minor protests raised before. Taylor Swift removed her music from the platform for about three years, but ahead of the release of a new album in 2017 she conveniently found an excuse to rejoin. Adele withheld her album 25 for a short while too.

The tech behemoth is too powerful and perhaps the temptation to give in to exposure and profit simply too great

And here lies the problem with boycotts: they are a pretty bad way of making a point because they tend to reveal our inconsistencies more than they demonstrate our moral purity. Swift gave in on hers eventually, despite nothing changing at Spotify. The tech behemoth is too powerful and perhaps the temptation to give in to exposure and profit simply too great for any normal recording artist to eschew.

Gesture made

So perhaps there is a lot to thank for the Old Guard like Neil Young – recently joined in boycott by Joni Mitchell – for making a gesture (or perhaps the idea of the principled, political artist is ceding ground to the darlings of the streaming universe – Adele, Swift, Drake). But Mitchell and Young don’t need Spotify. At the ends of their careers, they hardly require the fame it might bestow upon them; and the pair’s older audiences are much less likely to rely on streaming in the first instance. Young sold about half of his catalogue last year for a non-trivial amount of money too. It’s a lot easier to have principles when there is not that much at stake.

It might not be a lot but, in a world dominated by youth and hyper-fixated on finding the newest, shiniest artist to line the pockets of Spotify, it is at least reassuring to see Young in possession of his protesting instincts that came to characterise his earlier career. It is a dimension largely absent from the contemporary pop music scene and perhaps we are worse off for it.

But we ought to not get lost in petty noise about Joe Rogan. It is good to see artists take on Spotify and struggle to regain some ground in an increasingly imbalanced industry. But in a battle of sheer heft, a single artist like Young pales in comparison to the streaming giant – not even Swift made a serious enough of a dent for them to change tack.

Maybe it is hopeful, unrealistic and utterly fanciful to think Spotify’s supremacy might ever wane. But the whole point of David versus Goliath is that David won in the end.