The rock band Belly recently added an unusual message to its Spotify page: a green, black and white banner ordering fans to “DELETE SPOTIFY.”
The movement sparked by Neil Young’s telling Spotify it “can have [Joe] Rogan or Young. Not both” is unearthing long simmering tensions between the streaming company and embittered musicians. Young was followed off the platform by Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgren, the frontman of the rock band Grin and a member of both Crazy Horse and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. They cited Rogan’s popular podcast, where the comedian has questioned whether young people need to get the coronavirus vaccine.
Belly wanted to join the movement and remove its music from the service, too, but it cannot under its current contracts. Instead, the band put up the banner. “It’s the smallest gesture we could make, but when you don’t have a lot of tools in your toolbox to conquer the giant, you’re going to do what you can,” bassist Gail Greenwood said.
For musicians who have been complaining about Spotify’s business model for years, their problem with Rogan is just the tip of an iceberg.
On Monday, Grammy-award winning R&B singer India.Arie pulled her music from Spotify, citing Rogan’s “language around race” but also noting that the company pays artists “a fraction of the penny” while spending a reported $100 million for exclusive rights to Rogan’s podcast.
“People are finally blasting an interrogation lamp on Spotify,” Eve 6 frontman Max Collins said. “It’s my hope that whatever side of the culture war, the Rogan-Neil Young thing, a person may land, that people can be sympathetic to the struggle of working artists trying to get fair pay.”
Kay Hanley, the frontwoman of the rock band Letters to Cleo and co-executive director of Songwriters of North America, began using the hashtag #CancelSpotify several years ago.
“To get people to care about this is like old man yelling at clouds. It just doesn’t resonate,” Hanley said. “It’s very dense and complex and boring. But I do think fans are the key to this. Once they start leaving Spotify for other services, that is what is going to make all the difference.”
At the heart of their battle against Spotify — the one Hanley and others have been waging long before Young sparked the most recent backlash — is money.
For each dollar of revenue Spotify earns, 58.5 cents goes to the owner of a song’s sound recording (usually a record label), Spotify keeps 29.38 cents, 6.12 cents goes to whoever owns publishing rights (usually the songwriter) and 6 cents goes to mechanical rights (often, but not always, owned by the songwriter), according to Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a financial consulting firm.
Artists are paid between $0.0033 and $0.0054 every time their song is played, according to Business Insider. By another metric, according to data that the rapper T-Pain tweeted in December, it takes the average artist roughly 315 streams of a song to earn $1 from Spotify. “Every other service pays better rates than Spotify. Napster pays the highest rates, believe it or not,” Hanley said. There, for comparison, a song has to be played only 53 times before the artist earns a dollar.
A spokesperson for Spotify declined to comment on artists’ complaints about their compensation, pointing to a website with information on how, and how much, it pays artists. The site emphasizes that about 70 percent of the revenue it takes in goes to various rights holders.
But some musicians say that’s not enough, especially as Spotify pours money into the podcast space. In 2019, it announced a plan to spend up to $500 million to acquire companies “in the emerging podcast marketplace.” And it’s done just that, making major acquisitions ever since, which include Gimlet Media for an estimated $230 million, Anchor for more than $100 million, the Ringer for nearly $200 million and reportedly spent more than $100 million for “The Joe Rogan Experience.”
“It looks super lucrative for them. It’s a lot cheaper to make a podcast than it is to make a Neil Young album,” Cake frontman John McCrea said.
Artists say they worry not just about how little Spotify pays but also that the money the company generates with their music is being used to support podcasts like Rogan’s — especially since such misinformation could arguably extend the coronavirus pandemic, which has cut off a major revenue source: touring.
“Touring is the only way a band like ours makes money, and we have not been able to tour in two years,” Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly said.
“We’re getting a fraction of a penny for streams, so we’re not making any money anyway,” Greenwood added. “What’s awful about that is we don’t want to be complicit in a machine that funds a program that might prolong the pandemic.”
On Wednesday, Young’s former bandmates, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, said they would join him in abandoning Spotify, citing ethical concerns. “Knowingly spreading disinformation during this global pandemic has deadly consequences,” they said in a Twitter post. “Until real action is taken to show that a concern for humanity must be balanced with commerce, we don’t want out music – or the music we made together – to be on” the platform.
For many musicians, simply removing their music from the platform may not be an option. Major artists — such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan — have sold their entire catalogues for large sums and lost any control over how they’re used.
Many bands never had complete control to begin with. “A lot of musicians from the pre-streaming era were trained to make sweeping compromises around wages right out of the gate, when we were still on our first amps, basically,” Donelly said.
These contracts never envisioned streaming. “We’re all bands that signed our record deals a decade or more before streaming technology existed,” Collins said. “But it’s somehow ethical that those deals have been rolled over into this new technology that not even the most cynical … record guy of yore could have predicted, that a band like ours could get over a million streams a month and get paid … [little] for it, while the Spotify CEO becomes a multibillionaire and their shareholders get rich?”
Sadie Dupuis, who fronts the rock band Speedy Ortiz, said she was “impressed to see Neil Young take a decisive stance against Spotify” but disappointed that his criticism of the platform didn’t extend to the “poor compensation of the musicians on which it builds its wealth.”
“There are a whole lot of reasons to critique Spotify,” Dupuis said in an email. “I wish the contingent of fans unsubscribing due to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell were also made aware of how little of their subscriptions were actually making it to the artists they love.”
Perhaps the most frustrating part, Dupuis said, is Young’s encouraging his millions of fans to drop Spotify and sign up for Amazon Music. “All new listeners will get four months free,” he tweeted.
Dupuis, along with bands including Deerhoof and Downtown Boys, pulled her catalogue from Amazon in 2019 as part of No Music for ICE, a campaign protesting Amazon’s contracts with Palantir, a data-mining company that provides software for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In response to complaints about its relationship with Palantir, an Amazon Web Services spokesman said at the time that companies and government organizations should use technology “responsibly and lawfully.”
“I’m incredibly disheartened by Neil Young’s suggestion that consumers head to Amazon instead,” Dupuis said. “Amazon is in no way a more ethical option than Spotify.”
(Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
But that may be a fight for another day. “I’m trying to keep the message as simple as possible: Don’t use Spotify,” Collins said. “Most other platforms pay better. Use anything but Spotify. They are the giant we need to fell.”