Analysis

Joanna Newsom slams Spotify – but there’s much more to say


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When artists criticise music-streaming services and/or complain about tiny royalty cheques, their concerns need to be taken seriously.

Sometimes that means challenging the streaming services with the points raised by those musicians, and sometimes it means questioning the basis for the criticism. In the case of Joanna Newsom, it’s both. She’s certainly not a fan of Spotify, comparing it to a rotting banana in a Los Angeles Times interview.

“Spotify is like a villainous cabal of major labels. The business is built from the ground up as a way to circumvent the idea of paying their artists,” she said.

“They can make their money from advertising and subscription, and they don’t have to pay their artists anything for that. So it’s set up in a way that they can just rob their artists, and most of their artists have no way to fight it because they’re contractually obligated to stay with the label for x amount of time and you can’t really opt out.”

There’s plenty to question there, from Spotify paying out 70% of its advertising and subscription revenues to rightsholders – if not artists directly – to the claim that artists “can’t really opt out” coming from an artist who’s done exactly that: Newsom’s music isn’t available on any on-demand streaming service.

The now-familiar image of Spotify as a “cabal of major labels” also takes the majors’ equity in the service as proof of cahoots, rather than (as was the case when Spotify launched) as an unavoidable requirement for licensing – not to mention the fact that Spotify was one of the first streaming services to also grant an equity stake to indie licensing agency Merlin.

And yet… Newsom’s criticism does present some tough questions for Spotify, about why its efforts to explain how its payouts work are still falling on deaf ears. When Pandora, with its much lower average per-stream payout, “makes a kind of sense” to Newsom in a way that Spotify does not, the company clearly has a problem with its messaging.

Spotify has outlined its royalty-calculation process in more detail than any rival on its Spotify Artists site; it has run events with management body the MMF; and it has a team working directly with artists behind the scenes – yet still a story like this comes along every few weeks.

Celebrating milestones by stars like Ed Sheeran is an important part of Spotify’s (and streaming more generally) message to the music industry. But figuring out how to explain the service’s positive impact on the careers of artists at Newsom’s level – not to mention actually making it better for them through new features and partnerships – is just as important.

“We’d love to talk with Joanna about how we’re making streaming work for artists and songwriters around the world, cause we’d love to work with her too,” said spokesperson Jonathan Prince in the wake of the LA Times interview. Finding more ways to talk convincingly about that work publicly is a must for Spotify.

Stuart Dredge

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