Tidal’s Choppy Waves Keep Rolling

The choppy waves keep on coming for Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal, as today it was hit again with another round of criticism. I myself outlined my thoughts on the Tidal service first in a post when it launched, and then again in a questioning follow-up post earlier this week. This time, though, the critique comes not from disgruntled music streaming fans or competitive services, but from Steve Albini.

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Tidal logo

Tidal logo

For those unfamiliar with Albini, he cut his teeth in the mainstream spotlight producing albums for artists like Pixies and Nirvana, and has become an outspoken critic of many of the streaming services in the last decade. A criticism from Albini can’t be as easily dismissed as it might otherwise be particularly because he has both the industry experience and insider knowledge to call those in the industry on their bullshit.

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Steve Albini; Photo courtesy: Jordi Vidal, 2014

Steve Albini; Photo courtesy: Jordi Vidal, 2014

Albini has been critical of the mainstream music machine even before Kurt Cobain’s death, jumping into the mainstream music business debate in 1993 with his piece entitled The Problem With Music. He’s done the math and lived out many of the results, and so when Albini takes aim at your service, you better realize that other people in the music community will take notice (even if the mainstream isn’t).

In an interview with Vulture.com, Albini used phrases like “little streaming fiefdoms” and the “budget version of Pono” when referring to Tidal. While the latter comment is a critique on the mainstream listener’s ability (or even care) to distinguish between lossless quality and normal mp3 audio quality, the former is almost a little more telling. “Little streaming fiefdoms” is pretty telling in and of itself; it’s dismissive of what Jay Z and company say Tidal is (and purportedly will be), instead asserting that the service is yet another little city-state vying for validation in the greater streaming landscape.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this particular thought process is what it means for the dynamic of the current landscape; as Albini (and others) become increasingly critical of services that act like little principalities, the traditional walled-garden approach to music seems to be under siege. And there are those of us who rejoice in that. The walled-garden concept works well in numerous areas of tech and business—it’s great for security, healthcare, and finance. But it is not good for media, and music specifically.

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Criticisms of Tidal on Buzzfeed the day after its launch

Criticisms of Tidal on Buzzfeed the day after its launch

Music is freedom, and needs to be treated as such. To constrain music to the dynamics of a walled-garden system is to take away so much of the actual discovery and freedom that is associated with it in its purest form (though many would argue that there’s still plenty of “discovery” to be had). Regardless of this fact though, it remains an important fact to note that people of Albini’s caliber are taking aim at people like Jay Z and services like Tidal.

One might even argue that they—whether they intend to or not—are clearing the path for new music services yet to be launched. Only time will tell in that regard. For me though, this does not go unnoticed. Anyone interested in the future of the music industry would do well to keep these criticisms catalogued and fresh in mind. It’s precisely by graphing these grievances that we will begin to see how the future of the music industry will unfold.

What Does It Say When Mainstream Artists Start Criticizing Tidal?

I’m not much of a Mumford & Sons fan. I have nothing against them as musicians; I just find that my taste in music to be a little different. But I respect the hell out of them for the statement they put out today.

Pulled by Digital Music News from other sources this morning, M&S were reported as disliking Jay Z’s new service Tidal. They’re not alone; other mainstream artists like Lilly Allen and Mariana and the Diamonds have voiced distaste for the service. And that’s not even taking into account the near biblical response from music fans over the service, all of which I spoke about in my coverage of Tidal’s relaunch a couple weeks ago.

But what makes M&S’s statement so stark is the candor with which frontman Marcus Mumford explained the band’s view of the service:

We wouldn’t have joined it anyway, even if they had asked. We don’t want to be tribal. I think smaller bands should get paid more for it, too. Bigger bands have other ways of making money, so I don’t think you can complain. A band of our size shouldn’t be complaining. And when they say it’s artist-owned it’s owned by those rich, wealthy artists.

Wow, some pretty powerful words from the neo-folk rock frontman. I rest my case. I may not be a major fan of M&S’s music, but I for damn sure am a fan of how they see themselves and their fans. They know what they are, and they know what they’re not. And what they’re not is dying for money in the same way an independent artist is. What they are, according to this, are a group of artists who recognize their good fortune. They assert that other artists on their level should recognize similar good fortunes and stop “complaining.”

If this isn’t telling of the splitting we’re starting to see in the music industry, then I don’t know what is. It’s a big day when even mainstream artists are standing up and articulating the difference between themselves and independents. It’s a whole new world.

If You’re an Independent, Kiss SoundCloud Goodbye

The Partnership with Zefr Isn’t the Real Story

News broke today both on The Verge and TechCrunch that SoundCloud is looking to step up its drive towards revenue by signing a deal with Zefr. For those unfamiliar with Zefr, they’re the same partner who works with YouTube to track content and brands. Part of what makes Zefr so helpful to YouTube is that they are able to track media files as well as specific brands like Nike or Coke.

But that’s actually not the story here. The real story is buried deep in the TechCrunch article. Helpful though Zefr may be to and for SoundCloud, they can’t help with the larger problem that SC has created for itself. No, that has to do with the licensing quagmire that SC is increasingly encircling itself with. It goes like this.

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SoundCloud, now a platform for major labels and advertisers

– SoundCloud, now a platform for major labels and advertisers

SoundCloud blew up as an independent-driven engine way before major label music was even a thought. It was the place for the singer/songwriter in his basement, or the newly formed doom metal band, to post their recordings and attempt fan acquisition. It was beloved by independents the world over because it was a free, easy way for them to distribute their material and make a name for themselves. That’s where SC started, but it’s not where they now find themselves.

Legal Problems That Were Never Solved

Of course SoundCloud’s rich environment of remixes and covers led to a legal quagmire that saw them losing material as complaints were brought against them from the original sources for copyright infringement. While Zefr does help specifically with this, it’s effectiely irrelevant, as independents will begin to migrate away from SC amidst a new major label focus anyway. I can imagine it was a major headache for SC as remixes and covers are particularly popular in certain genres of music. Thus began the drive away from remixes and towards “more mature” content. For those who care, this is basically code for major label content.

soundcloud_logo

And thus, instead of solving the more challenging problem (the legalities associated with remixes and covers) SC rather decided to chase the major label route to better compete with services like Spotify and Rdio. (Again, as noted above, partnering with Zefr does help, but will essentially become irrelevant in the bigger picture). In doing this, they basically told their grassroots fanbase (you know, the people who gave them love and support (and traffic) before anyone else) that they didn’t need them anymore.

Rather than spend the few million dollars of their funding figuring out the legalities they were faced with (which probably couldn’t have amounted to more than ~5M), they made the choice to look towards the major label paradigm for music content. Frankly, the partnership with a company like Zefr which helps in the copyright arena may not be too little, but it is too late. Let’s examine how this worked out for them.

Buying Into a Broken Business Model

Back in November of 2014, SoundCloud signed a licensing deal with Warner Music Group (one of The Big Three) to bring onto SC’s platform the music which Warner controlled through itself and its subsidiary labels. My assumption was (is) that SC is looking towards the other two big labels (Universal and Sony) to sign similar deals, and step up to the same level as a service like Spotify. Here’s why that was a bad business decision:

1. A Bad Business Model 

SoundCloud already had a dedicated userbase of independents who used it, without demanding licensing money upfront. To put this in perspective, the deal which SC signed with Warner most likely cost them ~45-50M for a 1-year contract. This means that they paid somewhere in the neighborhood of 50M to license music content from Warner for a year. This in turn means that they will most likely need to renegotiate sometime later this year; those licensing contracts are not static agreements. It also does not account for the royalties which they will need to pay on the backend. So, to recap, multi-million dollar expense on the front-end (which will need to be renegotiated eventually) and multi-million dollar expense on the backend.

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What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

– What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

2. You Can Only Have One Priority #1

Business 101: You can only have one priority #1 in the morning. SC’s priority #1 used to be its independent artists/users. Now it’s not, and it can’t be. How do I know? Because Warner now holds the power in the relationship. In providing SC with major label content, they have eventually shifted the paradigm of SC’s focus from independents to Warner’s major label artists. This means that, eventually, independents will begin to understand that they are no longer the priority, and will migrate elsewhere. That’s not a guess, that’s fact. Look at the migration patterns:

MySpace==>Purevolume==>Facebook==>SoundCloud==>?

The reality is that independent artists are loyal only insofar as they are the priority customer base. Why would they be loyal beyond that? They don’t have major label deals and massive radio play on FM radio to fall back on. And they’re not signed to a powerhouse like Warner or Universal. Which means they don’t need to settle for anything; they’re free to do whatever the hell they want.

3. You Should Never Depend on Anyone Else

SoundCloud has basically tied itself to the major label paradigm, which could cost it. It’s never a good business decision to tie your company’s future to the company structure and revenue of someone else. You should never be dependent on another company’s good fortune for your own upward trajectory. But in signing a deal with Warner, that’s effectively what SoundCloud did.

It goes like this: As the independents begin to see that SC has shifted its focus from their desires and needs to those of Warner’s major label artists, they will begin to look for other options. SoundCloud can’t really do anything about that because they’re now tied to Warner (and searching for deals with Universal and Sony). That means that as the independents begin to trickle out, they can’t market any sort of real campaign to woo them back; Warner wouldn’t let that happen. And if I was Warner, I wouldn’t either. Why would I? I want all the focus on my artists, not some independent artist who might be taking ears away from my stable of talent.

Once the independents start to trickle out to somewhere else, SoundCloud is essentially locked in to the major label paradigm. It will effectively need to renegotiate with Warner (and the others) because their major label content will become its lifeblood. If Warner decides not to renew their contract with SC (which they could do, since they have Spotify, Rdio, Deezer, etc. to fall back on), one could see the music-life sucked out of SC in a heartbeat. With no major label content, SC could become a shell of its former self, begging the independents to come back (which takes years, if it ever happens at all, just look at Purevolume and MySpace).

4. The Big Kicker

Now here’s the big kicker for SoundCloud: they have not yet been able to secure deals with Universal or Sony—only Warner. This means that they are effectively straddling two completely different music industries moving in opposite directions: the major label machine and the independent arena. Precarious though this may be, it’s not a secret. And the independents know it. Artists I’ve spoken to are already looking for more alternatives because they recognize that SC will soon become the same sort un-level playing-field as Spotify or Rdio, where they essentially stand no chance against the Taylor Swift’s and One Direction’s of the world.

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SoundCloud only has a deal with Warner as of now

– SoundCloud only has a deal with Warner as of now

If I’m SoundCloud, I’m driving hard at those Universal and Sony deals because I can’t backup. If I try to, that will send a message to Warner that I’m not really invested in their business model, and since Warner essentially now holds the keys to my content, that could be a major mistake. But if I continue to pursue those deals with the other major labels (which I can pretty much guarantee is what SC will do) I will lose that attractive quality that made me popular among independents to begin with.

Except these aren’t really the thoughts going around in SoundCloud’s head; they already made their decision when they inked that deal with Warner last November.

SoundCloud’s Independent-Focused Days Are Over

The options for SoundCloud as I see them now are really only to double-down on the major label paradigm and business model. They need to out-Spotify Spotify; and that’s going to be very difficult. Rather than sitting pretty as king of the hill with the ever-growing base of independents, they made the decision to move towards the major label content arena.

Does this mean that they are destined for failure? Of course not; they may in fact find a way to play the major label game better than even Spotify or Rdio. That’s entirely a possibility. Really only time will tell if that is what becomes of SC’s new business trajectory.

But it does mean that SoundCloud will play less and less of a significant role in the independent sphere, possibly moving mostly out of it in the next few years. It makes no economic sense for them to stay, now that they are pursuing the major label route. They may host independent material, but the independents will never be their bread and butter again—those days are coming to an end.

Independents aren’t stupid; they go where the best opportunities are for them. They don’t stick around too long where they’re not wanted or cared for. I wouldn’t, not if I was free to do what I wanted. Which begs the question: where will they go next?

Tidal Is Really Just a Ripple in a Larger Ocean

The Basic Background

Yesterday, Jay Z and company relaunched Tidal, the new music streaming company that they’re convinced is “the future of music.” After a $50+M purchase of Tidal (in the form of Aspiro) last year, Jay Z has been bending our ears with how the rerelease of the new service will be the best thing ever for artists, revolutionize the music industry, provide the best listening experience…blah, blah, blah. Only it likely won’t do any of those things.

Not the First Anything

In order to understand why Tidal likely won’t make good on any of the things Jay Z and his companions have promised, one needs to understand how the music industry works. First, let’s get something out of the way that’s been bugging me since I heard it during the launch party last night: “Tidal is the first ever artist-owned music service.”

No it’s not. NoiseTrade has been around since 2006, and was founded by singer/songwriter (that means artist) Derek Webb. So already it’s clear that the Tidal team needs to do a better job of researching their claims before making them.

No, It’s Really Not “Artist-Owned”

Next, the phrase “artist-owned service” is nice and poetic, but it’s frankly wholly untrue in this respect. Let’s examine the laundry list of artists now attached to the Tidal moniker and company:

  • Jay Z – Signed to Roc Nation (which he owns, and which had distribution deals with Sony Music (2009-2013) and Universal Music (2013-present)
  • Rihanna – Signed to Roc Nation (see above)
  • Beyoncé – Signed to Columbia (which is owned by Sony Music)
  • Alicia Keys – Signed to RCA (which is owned by Universal Music Group)
  • Daft Punk – Signed to Columbia (which is owned by Sony Music)
  • Madonna – Signed to Interscope (which is owned by Universal Music Group)
  • Kanye West – Signed to Def Jam (which is owned by Universal Music Group)

I could go on, but you get the point. This is not the “first ever artist-owned music service.” Frankly, it’s not really even “artist-owned;” it’s “label-owned by extension.” Let’s call it how it is, and pretending that these major label artists are independent operators is to fabricate an ideal (but false) reality. While it looks as if these artists belong to a whole slew of different labels, as my previous post on major label monopolies shows, this is a misleading thought process as they are more or less all owned by the Big Three. If anyone thinks that any of these artists will have the power to do things outside the interests of the three major record labels, they’re dreaming.

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The Big Three Major Labels and Their Subjects

The Big Three Major Labels and Their Subjects

Basically the Same Layout

Next, let’s talk about why the business model of Tidal is fanciful and unrealistic. TechCrunch reported earlier some details demonstrating that Tidal’s layout and functionality are basically a ripoff of Spotify’s layout. From what I’ve heard, Tidal basically copped Spotify’s layout, changed the colors, and added a few tweaks—but it’s not really all that different.

Married to An Obsolete Business Model

In terms of business model, what seems to make Tidal the most different is its decision not to offer a free tier (as Spotify and most other music services do). Rather, they will offer a high-quality lossless music experience for $20/month, and a downgraded, “premium” lower quality experience for the same $10/month that Spotify and other services charge (which, by the way, is an obsolete business model anyway). Jay Z and others at Tidal are banking on the hope that the rabid music fans out there will want to pay more money for higher quality music, in addition to more exclusive content on the Tidal service first.  While some music fans may in fact do this, it’s not a scalable hope because those fans are not the majority of music listeners.

Also, note that I said “more exclusive content on the Tidal service first“—which means it will definitely be available on other services too, just maybe a week or two later. And why not? Do you really think that the major labels who work with these artists are going to forego any revenue stream, just to keep Tidal more exclusive than the rest?? I don’t.

Tidal logo

 Tidal logo

So basically Tidal is going to offer the same major label music that is available everywhere else (including on non-music centered services like YouTube), but they’re going to nix the free tier (where most of Spotify’s conversions come from anyway) altogether and double the going rate for a monthly subscription. All the while, they will be aiming their service at a more niche market while providing non-niche music. Here’s my reality based on my experience in the music industry: high-fi, low-fi, it really doesn’t matter if your business model is outdated and your marketing strategy is insufficient for an overcrowded market. But yeah, this will definitely end well.

An Unscalable Model and Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

Let’s move on, and I can’t believe no one has really focused in on this, especially those within the tech community (though it was mentioned a bit in the TechCrunch report): Jay Z has enticed these other major label names into becoming a part of this service not by offering them money up front, but by actually giving them equity percentages of the company. As reports that the equity numbers hover somewhere around 3%, this is an admirable shot by Jay Z. He’s trying to tie those artists’ respective loyalties to Tidal by making the service’s benefits their benefits. If Tidal does well and goes up in value, so do their stakes.

There are only two problems with this: 1) it’s not scalable, and 2) too many cooks in the kitchen. In an industry (tech startups) where founders are always told to limit the number of cofounders (the “too many cooks in the kitchen” nightmare”), Jay Z has amazingly disregarded the whole thought process and it seems no one has really noticed. What’s more, conducting company decisions in a “town hall” style is going to spell disaster for Tidal; you just can’t run a company like that. There needs to be one captain at the helm of a ship; any more and the ship will capsize. Also, keep in mind many of these artists don’t even work well with others in the studio—now they’re all going to run a company together? Right.

So to recap: unscalable business model and too many cooks in the kitchen.

More Dedicated to the Needs of Which Artists?

While I admire the desire by Jay Z and others to create a service that is more dedicated to “the needs and rights of artists,” let’s also be clear which artists those people are. They are not the artists the world-over who are coming up and trying to find their fanbases; they are the artists who already have legions of fans all over the world. We’re not talking about the girl from Minnesota who wants to be an R&B singer, or the punk band from Toronto who want to find their core fanbase. We are talking about (mostly) pop, rap, hip-hop, R&B, pop-rock, and other well-known stars who want to extend their control beyond their music to dip their toes in the music-tech industry.

I’m only critical because these are exactly the kinds of artists who really don’t need help right now. They have enough money, and even if they hop from label to label, their fans will follow. They have already found their fanbases and core listeners. It doesn’t matter which label or service they’re on, those fans will still find them and listen to their new albums and go see them on tour. So basically this is yet another rehashing of the same major label music that we’re already drowning in anyway. And while I’m a fan of some of these artists myself, I nonetheless am critical of what appears to be another desperate money grab. As the following screenshots demonstrate, though Jay Z and others may not see it that way, the point is that most of their fans will ( and do):

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Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 1

Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 1

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.12.36 PM

Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 2

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.12.56 PM

Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 3

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.13.12 PM

Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 4

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.13.28 PM

Comment from BuzzFeed coverage of the Tidal release, number 5

If these artists really wanted to distance themselves from the major labels and the current music business dynamic, they would look for ways to explore other paradigms, rather than look for ways to make an obsolete system work.

In the End

In the end, I commend these artists for taking a step into a new arena, but I question their motives and the realities surrounding Tidal as a company. Personally, I think Jay Z way overpaid for Aspiro, and is seeking to build a service that really only artists (and that is to say a select kind of artist) will really appreciate and use. I don’t think that Tidal sets itself apart enough to really take over the demographics targeted by either Spotify, Apple Beats, or even SoundCloud. I think it’s a lot of bluster, but without any real solid business prospects. Only time will tell, but I think that Tidal is going to have a very tough time right out of the gate. We’ll see if Tidal is part of a rising tide, or simply another ankle-slapper service.

The Unflattering Spotify Light

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). [1]

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.

 

Notes

[1] 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.

Navigating Swift Currents

As we come to the end of 2014, things seem quiet in the music-tech arena—at least for now. Yet it wasn’t too long ago that things were blowing up between Spotify and a number of artists over royalty rates and compensation practices. No doubt the most famous of these disputes (this year) was between the streaming service and popstar Taylor Swift. In what has come to be known by some in the tech and music communities as SwiftGate, Taylor Swift abruptly pulled her entire catalogue from Spotify just around the same time that she released her new album 1989. The response was nearly biblical.

All I saw for weeks on end was a back-and-forth exchange of words, accusations, arguments, and media coverage between Swift and Spotify. Even the service’s CEO Daniel Ek took time to release a public statement responding to Swift’s qualms with the service. This was definitely a story with legs—it just didn’t seem to die down.

Yet what struck me the most were not the statements made by either side, or even the statistics each used to bolster their respective cases. I was more focused on the amazingly divided response that Swift’s actions and statements generated from her fans. Personally, I’m ambivalent—I enjoy some of Swift’s music, though not all, and would not call myself either a major fan or a hater. When Swift wrote her op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, though, there were immediately a couple of things I didn’t agree with. Perhaps the most presumptuous statement I thought, though, was:

“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

This statement, though most likely made with the best of intentions, comes across to many within the music community as narrow-minded and out of touch. First, I readily agree with Swift that music is indeed art; art is subjective and highly personal to each person who experiences it. But art is not inherently rare. Nor should it be. This is an outdated concept that smacks more of a stuffy art-history academic than a modern musician. Art as a commodity, or even simply as a means of expression, should derive value from its inherent existence and experience; economic value is secondary to the very nature of what art is. In stating that art requires qualities of rarity and economic value in order to be valuable as art, Swift thus demonstrates a misunderstanding of what art functions as at its core. The concept of music as free is a notion that I will tackle in a later post (probably more than one), but what I will say with regard to Swift’s analysis is to point out how narrow its definition is. There are a great many artists who distribute their music for free, either online or as free giveaways at shows. By insinuating that these artists are devaluing their own art by making the decision to freely distribute, Swift does two things: 1) she demonstrates a worldview that is essentially narrow in its scope, and 2) she effectively succeeds in insulting these artists, more or less stating that they’re not smart enough to “know better.” It’s been a while since I performed as an artist in my own right, but even I still take offense to the above insinuations. Am I really to believe that Swift never played a pass-the-hat acoustic set at a Starbucks or diner somewhere when she was just starting out? [1]

But back to the response to Swift’s sparring with Spotify. If the goal was to generate a media response, then such a goal was certainly achieved. The responses from Swift’s fans in the general music community were far more diverse than even I would have thought. They ranged from those championing her decision and statements to those swearing they will never buy another Swift album from here on out (of course, the latter of those is hardly a statistic that can be confirmed at present). Yet what I focused on through this whole maelstrom of attention and biting back-and-forth comments was the way it could very conceivably (and most likely did) affect Swift’s fans on a psychological and emotional level.

Music, as stated, is emotional and highly personal. There’s a certain identification that one feels when one identifies with a particular artist, song or album. The psychology of wearing a shirt with an artist’s moniker on it effectively marks one as flying a flag for that artist—they become an extension of oneself—an extension of us. We use an artist’s music as a way to expand our sense of expression to the world. That makes our identification with that music highly volatile. Snap decisions like Swift’s have the opportunity to aggressively backfire (depending on one’s point of view, I suppose). Thus I question the long-term effect of Swift’s actions and statements. Yes, the immediate effect was fantastic for her: sales of her new album 1989 blew through the roof upon it’s release on Oct. 27, 2014. It opened at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold over 1 million copies. But I can’t help but focus on the gripes of those fans who felt personally betrayed by Swift’s removal of her catalogue from and subsequent sparring with Spotify. Are those fans going to go see her on tour? Buy a shirt? Tell their friends about her new album? Probably not. The way I see it, Swift has effectively traded long-term benefits for short-term gains. One thing I know about music and artist-loyalty is that it can be a fickle beast. The possible (probable?) effect of dividing her fanbase I think will constitute a major challenge for Swift to overcome in the future. She will have to spend time, energy, patience (and most likely money) trying to reconnect with those fans she might have alienated or even lost.

While it’s possible that the short-term gains may have been worth it to Swift and crew, I think the next currents will prove more difficult to navigate in the coming months. I think Swift has a lot of work ahead of her, and a lot of damage-control to partake in (ironically, not unlike the damage-control that Metallica faced in the wake of the whole Napster controversy). [2] I suppose only time will tell. We’ll reassess in the new year.

 

Thanks to Alyssa Shaffer, Charles Jo, Mom, and Dad for reading drafts of this. (And to Paul Graham for reminding me that thanks are as much in order for assistance as much as publication of the final product).

 

Notes

[1] Within the music community, the term “pass-the-hat” most readily refers to a (usually) acoustic set where no cover charge is required, and the artist relies mostly on the generosity of the audience to throw a few dollars in a hat or the guitar case to show their appreciation for and enjoyment of the performance.

[2] As many may remember, when Metallica waded into the thick of the Napster controversy in 2000 (most visibly driven by drummer Lars Ulrich), their rabid fanbase subsequently split into those who supported Metallica’s decision and those who vehemently opposed it. The alienation of a portion of their fanbase proved a challenge that took Metallica a number of years to surmount (and arguably one they are still surmounting). It affected both their sales of merchandise/tickets and their reputation within the music community.