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Beyond the Algorithm: Artists Imagine a World Beyond Spotify

Spotify is designed to make itself indispensable. It offers up endless choices. It keeps playing when the track or album you’ve clicked on is over. It tries to predict your tastes, so you keep consuming content—er, music—for as long as possible.

But at the end of the day, it’s just a format. And Spotify may not be the right format for everybody.

That became clear recently when Spotify CEO Daniel Ek shared a disturbingly narrow vision of how music and musicians should work. In an interview with the website Music Ally, the tech billionaire responded to criticisms that Spotify doesn’t pay artists enough by pointing to the artists themselves. “[S]ome artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough,” he said. “The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.”

Not surprisingly, Ek’s prescription for success didn’t sit well with many musicians, who felt that he was favoring production schedules and marketing campaigns over the intimacy and craft of the creative process.

“It really illustrated his ignorance about how musicians operate,” Nika Roza Danilova, better known as songwriter Zola Jesus, tells SPIN. “And it really revealed his utter lack of empathy or understanding of the arts. Which made me realize he’s not really probably a fan of the arts—he’s a fan of business.”

In some ways, Ek is right.

Music, like many forms of content creation these days, requires artists to embrace technology and market themselves in ways they’ve never done before. On top of writing music, an independent artist interested in building a career and fan base also has to engage with social media, regularly maintain digital platforms, and tour relentlessly to pay the bills. Success relies on a type of all-consuming, tech-savvy engagement that would’ve been unthinkable 20 years ago—and Spotify is hardly the only platform responsible for that reality.

Yet this doesn’t make the process of actually conceiving the next Kid A or Purple Rain any less laborious. Nor does it make Spotify’s royalty payouts any less meager for many musicians, who according to one recent estimate earn a whopping $0.00348 per track stream on Spotify’s platform. As Cracker singer David Lowery shows in the report, by that rate you’ll need a million streams just to make $3,500. Many niche and experimental artists have different definitions of creative expression and success. Getting a million streams is not really a part of that picture, but their art is still worthwhile and they still deserve to make a living.

Of course, there are also artists and creatives working in more behind-the-scenes roles—as backing musicians and other studio contributors. Their work often goes unacknowledged on the Spotify app, which doesn’t feature the kind of expansive liner notes found in a traditional record sleeve or on sites like Discogs. These artists don’t cater directly to fan bases or produce music with an eye towards maximum listenership—but they’re still undeniably a part of this vast, unwieldy community, whether they’re acknowledged or not.

Holly Herndon, speaking by phone from her home in Berlin, sees the issue as going beyond just one executive or platform. In Interdependence, a new podcast that she hosts with her partner, digital artist and philosopher Mat Dryhurst, they’ve been discussing how to transition away from the idea of independence (celebrated in Spotify’s case by its emphasis on endless choice and personal playlist curation) and move towards a model of collective engagement and community with a “narrative of interdependence.”

One of the guests on the podcast was Jesse Walden, an investor behind a recent venture capital undertaking called Variant Fund, which promotes using blockchain technology to develop essentially co-op versions of digital platforms, where users who contribute content get an ownership stake.

“Everything feels a little bit too atomized at the moment. Like, even working with a Patreon or something like that, it still feels like this kind of independent, solo endeavor when I feel like there could be more collective projects,” Herndon says. “It’s so strange and conservative that we have more tools available to us than ever before and somehow we manage to make everything way more uniform.”

Spotify is easy, convenient, and cheap—offering access to 50 million songs for just 10 bucks a month. It’s also a defining model of how many different kinds of content get consumed today, so it’s hard to fault anyone for using it.

But there are other ways of engaging with music, including some that give you a more direct connection to the artist. Zola Jesus makes a living by staying in contact with fans through her Patreon newsletter and by selling music off of platforms like Bandcamp. Like many artists, she also depended heavily on live shows and touring for steady income—until that crucial revenue evaporated with the mass closure of clubs and bars due to the coronavirus pandemic. All of her efforts constitute the kind of “continuous engagement” that Ek was talking about, yet she only draws a fraction of her total income from streaming services like Spotify.

“It’s hard as a musician to say, ‘Buy music, people!’ because everyone understands that we’re going through a huge economic depression or recession right now,” she says. “You want your music to be available to everybody. But at the same time, we’re also really struggling. So if people do have the means and resources to support musicians on Patreon, buy their albums on Bandcamp, [and] buy their merch from their official web stores, these are direct ways to support artists. And they’re going to see that. They’re going to live off of that.”

Ultimately, even if music listeners do listen to more records and MP3 downloads (and subscribe to more artist Patreons), we’ll all still live in a system where the presence of Spotify and similar platforms looms large. It’s enough to make you wonder what kind of impact this will have on music and its creation.

Then again, music has been around for tens of thousands of years. Formats, however, come and go.