My Essay on Spotify Went Viral. Here’s What My Detractors Said.
Sweetheart Pubstack #41
We’re Rachel Hurley and Frank Keith IV, co-owners of the Sweetheart Pub. We’re music industry veterans with over 30 years of combined experience in the music business, having worked in licensing, talent buying/booking, label management, tour management, and more. Once a week, we’ll publish a new edition of this newsletter, where we’ll share some philosophy and actionable advice on all facets of the music industry.
We’ve been putting together a weekly playlist — adding seven songs every Friday (just enough to keep your attention) — check out The Sweet Spot to hear what we’ve been listening to.
What we’re thinking about this week…
Last week, just like everyone else in the music business, I closely followed the Neil Young / Joe Rogan story. I saw the subject of streaming compensation come up again and again. I decided on Wednesday to write a post about my thoughts on the streaming model and why it will never be a good source of income for musicians. As I started to write, I began hearing in my head what others might say to knock my opinion, so I took a deeper dive than I originally planned, and it ended up taking me four days to write something that I thought could stand up to scrutiny. The final piece ended up being 3500 words.
Here’s the original piece: https://www.facebook.com/itsashameaboutrachel/posts/2464802046989317
It’s been quite a week of DMs and emails from label owners, musicians, industry veterans and the like writing to say that they agree with the main premise of the piece, which is that due to the abundance of music, the value of it is going down. This isn’t a “hot take” that I just pulled out of my ass. Anyone that works in the industry can see this quite clearly.
That’s why the essay ended up going viral. After 25 years, I am mostly friends and colleagues with other people that work in the industry, and the vast majority of people on that thread agreed. Nevertheless, I am happy to address some of my detractors here. I did not address all of these things in the essay because it was already super long and I thought some of it was implied…but never underestimate people’s need to bring up irrelevant points OR to get super mad at you for simply laying out an argument (plenty of people did). Many questioned my experience, but I am used to that. A lot of the negative takes were that I didn’t get what Neil Young was doing by giving Spotify an ultimatum and there is no other way to look at what he did than as noble.
Let’s address that first.
I never said that Neil Young shouldn't protest — I just think there was a better way for him to do it. I like to reverse-engineer problems, so let’s look at his goal, which was for Spotify to get rid of the Joe Rogan podcast, because he spreads misinformation about COVID. From this we can gather that he thinks that if fewer people have access to JR, fewer people will be fed COVID misinformation.
Well, if it was January 2021, I’d say that might work, but in 2022, two years into the pandemic, can’t we all agree that removing Joe Rogan would have little impact on what anti-vaxxers think? First of all, he removed his own podcast from Spotify because he was making more money from other services, which is why Spotify ended up making an exclusive deal with him. He has 200 million listeners a month, and Spotify’s goal was to convert those people into subscribers, resulting in more money for artists. If Joe Rogan was removed, his listeners would only dig in and revolt. He would find another outlet for his podcast, no real change would come of it. Kicking Joe Rogan off Spotify only hurts musicians. It will not save lives or change anyone’s mind. The facts about COVID are OUT THERE. I know plenty of people who listen to JR that are not anti-vax. By now, we should be looking at other tactics to tackle misinformation, because what we are doing isn't working. In the US, only 64% of people eligible to be vaccinated currently are. Only 25% of those people have had a booster.
I think you have to weigh the outcomes of actions. Would taking Joe Rogan down move the needle and result in more people being vaccinated? I don’t think so. But does this mean that I think no one should say anything? NO. It just means that I think that Young could have done MORE. Posting an ultimatum to his website is literally doing the least. Instead, he could have built a coalition of artists and had a lot more firepower. He could have asked to be on Joe Rogan’s podcast and talked to him about how what he is doing is hurting people. Instead, he landed himself a bunch of publicity and now there’s a new conspiracy theory going around that Neil Young works for Pfizer. Young recently sold 50% of his catalog for 150 million dollars. He has his OWN streaming service. He landed a new deal with Amazon and they’ve just approved some podcast deal. Neil Young did not risk anything. He lost a couple hundred thousand dollars that he gets from Spotify, but he gained far more. And it did not result in Spotify removing Joe Rogan.
“Oh, but other artists are now removing their music too!”
Yes, a handful of artists, but think about how many regular people even know that any of this is happening. I can’t imagine Neil Young brought a significant number of subscribers to Spotify in the first place. Plus, let’s not forget that this is not Young’s first time to remove his music from Spotify. So how many fans do you think are actually going to unsubscribe? Well, we kind of know, because everyone who is actually unsubscribing has made a post about it. What good is it to unsubscribe if you don’t use it to virtue signal?
What Young was able to do is tank the stock market price, which probably hurt people’s retirement accounts, as the inexperienced sold off shares. Then this week, all of the sharks came in to take advantage of the situation. The stock price went down to 165 dollars a share on January 28th, at the height of the controversy, now it’s back to $202 — jumping the most it ever has on Monday for a total of a 12% jump from its lowest point, which was only a drop of 6% total. People that know the market are listing Spotify as a BUY, not a SELL.
I don’t disagree with Neil’s stance; I disagree with the lack of thought that went into it.
In terms of changing anything, Neil Young was not able to move the dial in any significant way. Even if 10,000 subscribers quit Spotify, that’s not enough to remove a podcast that actually brings in money. Now, is this the way things should be? I am not sure. I don’t think that the bottom line with companies should be profit and loss, which is why I don’t think the US government should be run like a business :) However, when you look at the outcome: no Joe Rogan on Spotify, his (millions of) subscribers potentially leaving the platform, less money for musicians, no real change in COVID misinformation; well, I am always going to side with what’s best for musicians.
Which brings me to people accusing me of not taking musician’s sides in the fight against Spotify. Believe me, I am on the side of musicians, but we have to be realistic. I’ve seen Spotify help boost many of my clients to success. I have also had clients where Spotify did not provide any traction at all. Either way, the majority of musicians can not survive without streaming. They know this. That’s why their music is still up on Spotify. If it was such a black and white problem when it comes to streaming payments, wouldn’t most musicians remove their music?
But Apple, But Tidal…
Both of these streaming services have fewer subscribers than Spotify. Apple can pay a higher rate because they do not offer a free tier. Tidal says they pay out more, but talk to any musician and ask them how long it takes for Tidal to pay. Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and Pandora are not the same. On Bandcamp you can go to individual profiles and stream songs, but it is not a streaming service and they have no plans to become one, Pandora is not an on-demand service, which is why their payout is even lower, and Soundcloud does not have the catalog of a true streaming service.
People also brought up the way Spotify pays. Oh David, não vai não.
I’ve written about this in detail before, so I’ll just leave this here if you want to do a deep dive:
Also, here is a tweet from one of Spotify’s data scientists explaining the different payment numbers as compared to other streaming services:
Of course, the main objection to the piece was that it was too long, and a lot of people felt the need to comment that they did not read it. That’s cool, bro. You should look up how algorithms work.
Some people did not like my “diamonds growing on trees” analogy, as they pointed out that diamonds are plentiful, it's just that the market is highly controlled. This does not make my analogy incorrect … in fact, it proves my point. Diamonds cost a lot because even if there are a lot of them, most of them are not for sale. If the music industry was regulated in that way, where only a certain amount of music was for sale at any given time, the price would rise.
Some people brought up a different payment system. Yes. A different payment system could make some difference, but people need to fast forward the tape when it comes to different payment systems and how that will affect everyone. If you think you have the solution, congrats! Get to work.
Some people brought up that they thought my math was wrong. It doesn’t matter. The numbers are so far off what people think is fair, insert your own numbers and you will come to the same conclusion. I was trying to inflate them as much as possible to show how they still wouldn’t work.
Some people accuse me of not caring about music, something I have dedicated my entire life to. Not sure why people think that if you try to look at things realistically and end the fantasy so many live in when it comes to music, it’s a bad thing. I want the artists I work with to make money. I want to help them come up with realistic solutions to make this happen.
I work with tons of musicians every year, some independent, some on labels. Do you know what I have never seen a musician have? A business plan. That’s where you lay out all of your expenses and all of your income streams and project what you would need to do to make your money back. How many streams? How many t-shirts? How many tickets? How many vinyl or CD sales? If you don’t even know what the goal is, you’re literally just hoping to luck out.
Some people wanted to bring up that Spotify’s CEO is worth billions. This is literally just a number on paper, he doesn’t have it in the bank. Again, as I mentioned, if you took all of his money and turned it into a price hike for musicians on the platform, they would still feel no significant difference. I think that most people do not realize just how big Spotify is. If you take the number I mentioned about 15% making over $1000, and that 15% is 187,000 profiles, that means the total number of artists on Spotify is well over 1 million.
Some people accused me of siding with the capitalist overlords. Well, the selling of music is a capitalist venture. I’m not sure how you get away from it. Yes, if Spotify did not let everyone use their service, it would be better for some musicians, but which ones? Once Spotify starts picking and choosing who is allowed on the app, well, then it just becomes a label.
The reason why I know that this streaming conundrum will never be solved is because everyone still puts their music on Spotify. Some people will blame it on their labels (or whoever they sold their catalog to), but how many artists on Spotify do you think are on labels? And what label wouldn't take down their artists' music if they thought it was beneficial to selling more albums? The fact is that Spotify provides a service that does help musicians, regardless of whether you take issue with their payouts.
Some people were really offended that I said most people could play an instrument. But this thesis is backed by neuroscience. Only 5% of the population is tone deaf. Most people can clap on beat, even make up their own beat. No one says that not everyone can play video games, because it’s entirely hand-eye coordination, and the more you do it the better you can become. I didn’t say that learning to play an instrument is easy, or would make you a songwriter, or a top-level player. The simple fact is it’s something everyone can learn if they put the time into it.
And no one — NO ONE — tried to argue the fact that as time goes on, and more musicians release music, the math only gets worse.
Okay, as we know, I can go on and on about this stuff. You should know that it comes from a place where I have a vested interest in musicians making as much money as possible. That means looking at things realistically. And realistically, I don’t think you’re going to be able to change Spotify enough that it will result in anything significant. Does that mean I think we are stuck with this model through the end of time? NOPE. I think blockchain is eventually going to totally disrupt the entire music industry’s status quo. With the move to new payment systems, you’re still going to have some losers; discovery will be more difficult, more people will not be a part of the conversation, less opportunities for everyone…but it will bring some reality to many musicians as to the number of people who are willing to pay for their music.
You don’t have to agree with everything I said — a lot of it is my opinion — but it is an opinion that comes from a long time thinking about the problem. I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I did want to share another way of looking at the problem that I personally have not seen raised. What could that hurt?
Why more musicians haven’t joined Neil Young’s Spotify boycott over Joe Rogan
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