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Tuesday
Nov 04 2014

Taylor Swift Vs. Spotify. Without All The Cute Taylor Swift Song References

For the last twenty-four hours, every too-clever-for-their-own-good snarky journalist in America is laying claim to headlines that read something like " Taylor Swift Breaks Up With Spotify " or " Taylor Swift And Spotify Are Never, Ever, Ever, Getting Back Together. " I get it. Brilliant. I see what you did there. I'm ironically laughing at how sardonic you are.

Lame Taylor Swift song references aside, there's an actual story here beyond the silliness music lovers should be aware of. I'm a bit put off by the condescending tone the media is reserving for Ms. Swift, especially here in the New York area, but that's another subject for another day. I also think the braintrust at Spotify could help their brand by laying out the facts instead of publishing silly playlists and treating this whole situation as if Ms. Swift is just in a bit of a childish snit.

I've admired Swift more for her business acumen than her music (but I do like her music), and I think as a business person, performer and public personality, she's done a good job of letting other young women know you don't have to sell yourself out in order to make good, accessible popular music. But there is more afoot here than a lone artist taking a stand against a corporate giant that's out to rip her off.

It's not unusual for an artist to embargo their work from Spotify and other streaming services, and that's certainly their prerogative. The Swift Vs. Spotify story has been reported as a "dispute" between the two. It's not. There is no dispute. Swift and her label, Big Machine Records, decided to pull all of Swift's back catalog from Spotify after opting not to release her latest album 1989 to the service. This is a business decision, with the extra added benefit of being able to be played as a crusade.

Swift has been vocal about her belief that music and art in general has intrinsic value and should not be free  – and there is no disagreeing with her on that point. The problem is, even on the free-side, music from Spotify is not "free." Artists get paid for each spin a song gets. There is a ton of misinformation being thrown at the public that what Spotify pays is barely worth anything, but the numbers don't back that assertion up.

I admit that when I first heard about the 1989 Spotify embargo I was all like " You go girl! " until I looked into the matter a little deeper.

Last April, one of my Spotify channels played a song by a new band from Alabama, St. Paul & the Broken Bones . I live in the largest metropolitan area in the United States, but it's also an area bereft of good radio. If you don't listen to a very few, narrow, genres of new music, or aren't stuck only listening to music that was popular 35 years ago, you're beat. Well, through Spotify I fell in love with St. Paul & the Broken Bones, as well as another half dozen or so other acts I would not have heard otherwise.

Let's look at the money I've spent on St. Paul & the Broken Bones so far since April:

  • For rough numbers, I'll say I listened to each song on the album 20 times via Spotify. Spotify pays roughly $0.005 per stream so I earned the band $1.20
  • I bought the album (on vinyl). I don't know what St. Paul's label pays them, but it's probably somewhere just south of $2.00, so now I've earned the band roughly $3.20
  • I also went to New York and saw St. Paul open for the Drive-By Truckers at the Beacon Theater last month. No offense to the Truckers, but I was there to see St. Paul. I spent $108 on two tickets. I don't know what the deal was between the two bands and the venue, but it might be safe to assume that St. Paul earned around $4.00 from my $108.00

So, there you have it, I'm a big fan of a new band and all of my support for the band has earned them around $7.20 – to split among the band and cover its other expenses!

I love this band and I'm trying to spend as much money on them as I can. Honest. But let's look at the numbers from a different point-of-view: the money I spent on the physical product (the LP) I spent once. I'm old and don't like people all that much so I may not ever go to another show of their's again, but every time I play them on Spotify, they get paid. I paid them once when I bought the album, but I rent the music when I stream it. Spotify's royalty rate is pretty much in line with terrestrial radio, and maybe a little better than satellite radio, but when I'm in the mood for some Southern blue-eyed soul, I can listen to it when I want to listen to it. In 40-something years of being a die-hard music addict, I never paid a dime to an artist to listen to their music on a terrestrial radio station, which was how I got my new music until recently. Now I do. Whenever I want. That's a good thing. (I do pay for a Sirius/XM subscription, but for this discussion, that business model isn't really relevant.)

So Why Did Taylor Swift Pull Her Music From Spotify?

You Swift fans aren't going to like this answer, but I'll sum it up in one word: " publicity ." I usually write about Cute gimmick, but what has it done to further the conversation? such fun and exciting topics as RMS calculations and speaker dispersion, and here I am writing about Taylor Swift – just like every other media outlet (real or imagined) in the country is doing. I'd say that as a publicity stunt, it's worked very, very well.

Swift and her label have every right to make her music available on whatever format they wish. Just like U2 had every right to invade my personal music space by adding their new album to my iTunes collection without so much as asking if it was okay (it wasn't). If she would rather her fans buy her music via downloads or physical product, that's great, but I don't think we should confuse this as a mighty stance for the little guy.

Another harsh reality of the music business may be in play here as well, and that is that Swift's label Big Machine, is on the market and an increase in physical sales will most certainly mean a higher value for the company as a whole. Remember, we're talking corporate profits and bottom lines here, so don't get mad, just understand that it is what it is.

If you're actually interested in fully understanding how this all works, read ." Macias is president of Thirty Tigers , a Nashville-based label services company that is in the forefront of the new music business economy.

Spotify would do well to stop trying to be cute with it's rejoinders to Ms. Swift, focusing instead on letting its customers know the service pays out approximately 60% of its income to artists and labels. Maybe a little more information about the new technology of music would help all of us be better understand our own roles in the relationship.

While Ms. Swift is a champion of getting artists paid for their work, this may not be her most shiningly altruistic moment. And that's okay to extent, as long as it doesn't perpetuate false ideas about how the music industry works as it enters a new era.

Jack Sharkey for KEF

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