Australian politics, society & culture

Streaming

Spotify

Record Paradise, St Kilda, Melbourne. © Richard Kelly/emptysleeve.com

Richard Guilliatt

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When I upgraded my iPod to the 160-gigabyte Classic a couple of years back, it seemed nirvana had finally arrived in the realm of portable music devices. The damn thing was smaller than a pack of cards but stored 20–40,000 songs, depending on how hi you liked your hi-fi. Who could possibly want more music in their jacket pocket? This turns out to be a redundant question in the age of perpetual obsolescence, because now I have another device of roughly the same size that gives me instant access to 11 million songs. This gadget is my mobile phone.

Spotify, the Swedish music-streaming service to which I and 15 million other people now subscribe, is either the saviour of the music industry, a malign plot to turn musicians into unpaid serfs or a damn good idea doomed to failure, depending on who you’re talking to. Whatever the case, you can’t use Spotify without experiencing an Alice-through-the-looking-glass glimpse of where music is heading now that it has become data. ‘Streaming’, as the word implies, turns music into a commodity akin to water or gas, something that’s pumped to you from parts unknown in a (seemingly) limitless supply, to be turned on and off like a tap. For 12 bucks a month your computer/phone/tablet can be connected through the fibre-optic pipelines to Spotify’s vast reservoir of recorded music, which I like to imagine is stored in some warehouse of humming hard drives in an industrial park outside Stockholm.

So far the company has obtained the rights to around 700,000 hours of recorded music, a library said to be expanding at a rate of 10,000 new songs per day. From Lutosławski’s String Quartet to Iggy Pop singing ‘Cock In My Pocket’, there’s something here for the whole family. And for anyone who has devoted an unseemly amount of time to collecting music in those old-fashioned CD and LP formats – the crate-diggers, the op-shop and record-store tragics – there’s something both giddy and depressing about this development. Suddenly the search is over; no need to wonder what those 1970s Italian albums by the avant-garde trumpeter Bill Dixon sound like, or whether King Sunny Adé’s Nigerian jùjú recordings really are better than his Westernised Island Records discs. It’s all here; just hit play. Much as Google has killed the speculative dinner-party conversation by making every facet of human knowledge instantly accessible, Spotify suggests a future in which it will be impossible to describe any musician as “undiscovered”.

Not that the entire history of recorded music is on Spotify just yet – enough artists are refusing to co-operate with the company to leave some gaping holes in its catalogue. The bone of contention, of course, is money. The royalty rate Spotify pays artists appears, on face value, to be pitiful – the US indie rock band The Layaways has published its royalty statements, which show an average income of 0.46 US cents per stream. Also, nearly three-quarters of Spotify’s customers don’t actually pay for the service – they sign up for the free subscription that gives them the service with advertisements (akin to FM radio on demand), rather than pay $12 a month for the better-sounding, ad-free premium service. So the music business is divided on Spotify’s modus operandi: some believe that any online music service that pays at least some royalties is better than peer-to-peer piracy; others fear that if the public can stream mp3-quality music whenever they want for the price of a few McDonald’s commercials, they’ll never buy a CD or download an iTunes track again.

So you won’t find Led Zeppelin or The Beatles on Spotify because the company has been refused the rights, and the new Black Keys album El Camino is likewise unavailable because the Akron rock band have adopted a hostile stance to streaming. Melbourne rock musician Gareth Liddiard has been more acerbic than most: “Spotify screw musicians harder than they’ve ever been screwed by anyone previous.” When I told one musician acquaintance that I was subscribing to the service, he said simply, “Please don’t.”

A story still widely circulated is that pop diva Lady Gaga earnt only $167 from Spotify for one million plays of her song ‘Poker Face’. But this turns out to be more myth than fact – $167 was the amount paid to one of the song’s co-composers for the million times the song was streamed by Swedish customers during 2008, the year Spotify launched. Since then the company has expanded into multiple countries and gradually upped its royalty rate. The optimistic theory of streaming is that when hundreds of millions of people are hitting play online, day after day, and streams are measured in the billions, a royalty rate of half a cent becomes a nice earner.

But that prospect is some way off in the shiny digital future, and Spotify’s long-term prospects are still a topic of debate in the business pages, given its $57 million net loss in 2011. In the meantime, those of us old enough to remember gatefold LP sleeves featuring David Bowie wearing a jockstrap have some serious adjustments to make in our relationship to what used to be called ‘records’.

For one thing, Spotify organises music in the half dumb way that so much of the internet works. The company simply buys the rights to millions of digital song-files provided by record companies and music ‘aggregators’ (companies that have rights to various music catalogues), then splatters them on its site in a manner that confirms its staff of tech-geeks would never win a round of RocKwiz. Search for “Paul Kelly” and you’ll find that Spotify can’t differentiate between Paul Kelly the Australian singer-songwriter, Paul Kelly the Irish folk musician, Paul Kelly the New York film composer, Paul Kelly the B-grade Nashville crooner and Paul Kelly the Florida soul singer. Instead it simply lists them all under a photo of the guy who wrote ‘To Her Door’ and lets us work it out for ourselves. This is the kind of confusion that record-store clerks used to guide you through, back before the retail apocalypse.

Another by-product of music as data is that many of the ‘albums’ Spotify lists never actually existed in the corporeal world you and I inhabit – they’re just lists of songs that a record label or aggregator has put together, complete with an ‘album cover’ that looks as though it might have been designed by a marketing executive’s four-year-old daughter using Microsoft Paint. The Detroit bluesman John Lee Hooker, for instance, recorded anything from 60 to 100 albums before he died in 2001, and something like 430 compilation albums of his oeuvre exist on various record labels. One thing the world didn’t need was more John Lee Hooker compilation albums, but Spotify lists hundreds of them of its own invention, sporting nonsensical titles like I Heart John Lee Hooker and recycling the same songs within ‘album covers’, which in some cases feature photographs of men who aren’t actually John Lee Hooker.

Does it matter? Maybe not – maybe endless virtual John Lee Hooker albums spiralling out into infinite cyberspace is the price you pay for the aggregated instant gratification of streaming. In the past two months alone I’ve Spotified my way through most of the back catalogue of the reggae musicians Sly & Robbie, the French bassist Henri Texier, the Brooklyn funk act The Budos Band and a bevy of other musicians whose recordings I may otherwise never have heard, certainly not legally. Presumably, somewhere in the data stream, some virtual money in increments of half a cent is winging its way to their bank accounts. And while listening to Bob Dylan’s new album, Tempest, for the fifth time last week, I began to feel that it wasn’t quite enough just having the Bobster’s wheezing profundities piped in from Sweden, like some disembodied voice of doom. I wanted to know more about the album, like who plays on it, where Dylan recorded it and whether he still dresses like a riverboat gambler. What the hell, I might just buy the CD.

Richard Guilliatt

Richard Guilliatt is a Walkley Award–winning journalist. His work has appeared in the Independent, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. His books include Talk of the Devil: Repressed Memory and the Ritual Abuse Witch-Hunt.
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Published in The Monthly, December 2012 – January 2013, No. 85