With the first month of 2015 under our belts, things continue on in the music industry that hearken back to the last quarter of 2014 in almost predictable ways. YouTube and Apple are trying new paths forward for their music services (which I will cover in later posts), but perhaps the most telling of dynamics is what’s going on with Spotify right now.
Most anyone who paid any bit of attention in October-November of last year will remember the meltdown between artist Taylor Swift and music streaming service Spotify so cleverly termed Swiftgate. Purportedly over compensation (or lack thereof) for music streaming royalties, the spat between the pop star and the streaming service was a true story with legs, continuing for weeks on end. As each side released statements following Swift’s pulling of her entire catalogue from the service, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and Swift’s management engaged in a series of statements, each seeking to portray themselves in a positive light.
Many of us within the music industry suspected that Taylor Swift’s underlying motive was a PR move enacted to boost numbers of Swift’s upcoming album release (and one which absolutely worked). Swift’s October release of her album 1989 blew well past one million in sales by 2014’s end, and has now been certified 4x Platinum (in excess of four million copies shipped). 
At the time I predicted that the dance was not over—that things would continue to evolve in 2015—and they have: last week, Spotify released a statement noting the termination of its contract with PR agency M&C Saatchi PR, originally tasked with heading up the music service’s accounts in the consumer, corporate, and b2b arenas. The dropping of M&C is telling in more ways than either company appears ready to admit.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Spotify dropped M&C because the latter botched Swiftgate. Whether originating initially from M&C itself, or from Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, it is clear that their subsequent comments on Spotify’s royalty rates and on the questions of fairness were neither well-timed nor well-received within the music community. Instead of resolving the Swiftgate debacle for the music service, it managed to stir up even more questions. What Spotify should have done (or had done on its behalf by M&C) in the course of Swift’s scathing comments is essentially recuse itself of the whole situation; their response only made matters worse. In the end, Swift got all the publicity she (most likely) wanted, and her album blew through the roof with record numbers for the year. Spotify, on the other hand, was cast, yet again, in the same light that has proved unflattering and awkward for other services like Pandora and Rdio.
Though it might be too much to assert that M&C had any control over those events, it is clear that whatever work it did in the wake of Swiftgate was at the very least misguided. In the music industry, he said/she said battles are fought out in the trenches of the fanbases, not in conference rooms, and not in statements released to the media. Though I think Swift’s move was intended more to benefit herself than her fans, a great many of those fans felt the opposite, and will migrate away from Spotify to find her music elsewhere. Swift achieved her goal by spinning the argument as being about her fans and about fairness for artists. Though the truth may be debatable, what is indisputable is that Swift came off to many as having taken proactive action for the sake of her art and fans.
Spotify (and M&C by extension), would have been well advised to spin Swiftgate as a pop star being presumptuous and out of touch with her fanbase. Instead, Spotify/M&C’s purely reactive response allowed Swift to spin the debate as being about royalty rates and artist compensation. Thus, in “commenting on Swift’s departure,” Ek ended up obliged to defend his company’s compensation policy as a whole. A simple statement by Ek that Spotify was disappointed to lose Swift’s catalogue, but that he respected her decision, would have taken the legs out of Swiftgate. Instead, his ineffective efforts to justify Spotify’s compensation policy gave Swiftgate legs, made Swift into the David fighting Goliath, and left Spotify with enough lasting bad press to make it look around for a different PR agency.
Spotify’s dance with Taylor Swift may now becoming to an end with its dropping of M&C as its PR agency, but Swiftgate opened the door for other artists to take shots at the company. Royalty rates are not about to get any better, and life for the Spotify camp is not about to get any easier concerning artist compensation. The streaming music wars have only just begun; hopefully Spotify’s next PR firm will find the right ammunition to fight them.
Thanks to Dad, Charles Jo, Scott Menor, and Terrence Yang for reading drafts of this.
 It is important to note that RIAA certifications such as gold and platinum do not always mean copies sold. Over the last few decades, certifications have extended to sometimes include multiple discs within one album (a double-album, for example), or simply albums shipped by the record labels to retail outlets. More information on RIAA certification qualifications can be found here.
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