Spotify made £56m profit, but has decided not to pay smaller artists like me. We need you to make some noise | Damon Krukowski

It’s that time of year when Spotify urges its artists and users to brag about their 2023 usage of the platform, via a heavily promoted programme called Spotify Wrapped. Artists are given dazzling figures for how much our music was streamed – for instance, it said people had spent enough time on the platform with my old band Galaxie 500 “to walk from the Earth to the moon four times”. My current band, Damon & Naomi, only provided the soundtrack for a comparatively modest trek, “from Berlin to Beijing three times”.

What it won’t tell either artists or users in Spotify Wrapped is how much money was paid for all that streaming time. Short answer: not enough. If you want to do the maths, the maximum one can possibly earn in Spotify royalties is $0.003 a stream. It doesn’t add up to a living wage for most artists.

And now, to make matters far worse, starting in 2024 Spotify will stop paying anything at all for roughly two-thirds of tracks on the platform. That is any track receiving fewer than 1,000 streams over the period of a year. Tracks falling under this arbitrary minimum will continue to accrue royalties – but those royalties will now be redirected upwards, often to bigger artists, rather than to their own rights holders.

This sounds incredible, but there’s nothing to stop it. And their primary business partners – the three major labels – are cheering the change on because it will mean more money in their pockets.

For the rest of us, this is the quiet end to a number of loudly promoted ideas that would enable working- and middle-class creators to benefit from micropayments in the platform economy: the “long tail”, the “democratisation of content”, the “end to gatekeeping”. We’ve been hearing these slogans for decades, while watching our incomes from creative work go down and down, until finally now, for many of us on Spotify, they will hit absolute zero. This while those at the top of the pyramid – the platforms themselves, and the handful of rights holders they benefit the most – continue to swallow a greater and greater share of industry revenue.

Galaxie 500, from left, Damon Krukowski, Naomi Yang and Dean Wareham, in Boston, 1990.
Galaxie 500, from left, Damon Krukowski, Naomi Yang and Dean Wareham, in Boston, 1990. Photograph: Steven Senne/AP

The way Spotify accounts for the music it uses is a zero-sum game. Each of us is paid not by the individual listeners we attract to our recordings, but by the proportional share we can claim of the total money in the system. This seems like it might work out the same, but it doesn’t: it slants toward the top, where massive numbers pull massive proportions of the pot. Down at the level of most tracks on the platform, a devoted fan who listens to the work of a lesser known artist over and over still pays most or all their subscription money to Ed Sheeran, Drake, Taylor Swift and Bad Bunny. Even if they have never, ever streamed any of those very, very popular artists.

Some artists have been screaming about this imbalance for years. You can count me among that number, along with the US-based advocacy group I am a part of, United Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW); or Tom Gray of the band Gomez, who launched the very visible campaign #BrokenRecord in the UK. We have been calling for a switch from this so-called pro-rata accounting, to a user-centric system that would reward artists directly with the money paid into the pot by those who actually listen to our work. Spotify has demurred.

And now they are writing most of us off by instituting a minimum number of streams for claiming any payment at all from the system. True to form, this saving will not be returned to consumers, but redirected to those already earning more from the platform. It is a reverse Robin Hood scheme, moving money from those of us at the bottom into the pockets of those at the top..

How about a little outrage, music fans? We need your help, because we artists and labels at the low end of the scale have absolutely no negotiating power with Spotify, which dominates music streaming in much the same way that Amazon dominates online retail. Streaming is now responsible for 84% of recorded music revenue in the US, according to the Recording Industry Association of America – and Spotify has double the streaming market share of either of their nearest competitors, Apple and Amazon. None of these three extremely well-capitalised corporations need to listen to artists at the low end of the scale like me, even though collectively we are providing the bulk of content on their platforms. But none of them flaunts that fact quite like Spotify, which is the only one so far that has decided to simply stop paying most of us altogether. This is in spite of its recently reported quarterly profits of £56m.

Why not pull our work off Spotify, I hear you saying? There’s another reason we need help from our fans. In the US at least, labour laws are such that artists cannot organise a mass removal of our work from a platform. Nor can we advocate that you, the consumer, stop using the platform in any coordinated fashion. Were we to do so, it is we – the artists – who could be sued by the platform for unfair business practices. You got that right. We are classified as suppliers for the streaming platforms. And coordination between suppliers in business is collusion, not organising, as it would be if we were classified as labour.

Labour. What a funny concept. I understand it includes being paid for one’s work. What must that feel like? If I knew, I might write a song about it – but it would only line the pockets of others.


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