Dave Stewart’s Spotify reversal, and how music streaming becomes an ethical issue

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Issue Date: 
Sep 30 2013 - 12:10pm

From Issue:

Recording artist and producer Dave Stewart (best known for Eurythmics) has reversed his previous anti-Spotify stance, criticizing Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for “not getting it.” (Yorke famously conducted an angry public withdrawal from Spotify.) A year ago, surmising from Stewart’s public comments, he didn’t quite get it either. At that time, Stewart complained that if one of his albums were streamed nonstop for three years, he would earn only $47. Now, speaking to The Guardian, the man sounds like a newly-hired Spotify brand evangelist: “They [Radiohead] were misinformed. Spotify is one of the few companies that is transparent and actually pays properly [...] as a songwriter you should worship Spotify.”

Deification is certainly an extreme position in the Spotify opinion spectrum. But if holy reverence seems like an exaggeration, no more so than Spotify demonization which has labeled the service “a necessary evil” and “the definition of evil.”

A few days ago, NPR published an article titled, “Does Using Spotify Make You A Bad Person?” Two interesting points underlie the positioning of that article as a piece of ethics journalism. First, the title and its premise assume that readers have an established inner context for thinking about streaming audio as a moral gray area. Second, the question was sent in by a listener/reader, who was presumably struggling with an ethical dilemma related to her Spotify use.

Responses to the article range from polite disagreement to flaming scorn for posing the question in the first place. (The most incendiary comments reside on NPR’s Facebook page.) Overwhelmingly, article feedback refutes the gray-area premise. Some readers describe the value of music discovery in Spotify, and assert that long-tail artists benefit more from streaming exposure, even in tiny payouts, than they would without it. Others cite plain legality, criticizing the article as inappropriate on that basis. Indeed, the should-we-feel-guilty type of article is reminiscent of moral hand-wringing from the Napster days of 1998, when masses of consumers were enjoying an ownership platform that really was struggling to find a legal toehold.

Two media drumbeats contribute to framing Internet radio as a guilty pleasure, no less questionable than unauthorized file-sharing. First is a royalty and payout controversy, which spotlights both the still-immature life stage of the industry and the complexity of rights licensing. Partial information and misinformation skew public understanding of how streaming music content is acquired, and how creators and performers are paid for its use. When Dave Stewart accuses Thom Yorke of being “misinformed” -- and implies that he was, too -- it is easy to believe.

The second media drumbeat is celebrity advocacy on behalf of artists. When Thom Yorke, Dave Stewart, Nick Mason, and others utter their recriminations or reconciliations, their comments beget swirls of coverage and opinionated comments. These star-tinged blasts suffer from the same confusions and partial realities as the coverage of legalities. Stewart’s turnaround, like Nick Mason’s (see Friday’s RAIN Newsletter) seem to represent a growing reversal of celebrity sentiment, perhaps driven by balanced fact-finding such as David Touve’s correlation of streaming revenue to broadcast revenue. (PDF here.) Touve deconstructs ASCAP’s “Songwriters Under Attack” media campaign, and concludes that music creators might receive identical revenue for broadcast and streaming use, per listener impression. His calculations include some arithmetic runarounds, but notwithstanding those unavoidable fuzzy spots in the math, the report solves flagrant misunderstandings of the difference between one-to-one Internet streaming and one-to-many broadcasting.

In Dave Stewart’s latest epiphany, he forecasts the growing significance of streaming music in terms that Spotify and Pandora have used for a few years: “It’s a volume business.” Streaming companies often respond to critics by saying, “Just wait” -- much as Amazon preached to shareholders in early days of its growth (and still does). The popularity of free online listening is a recent phenomenon. Although the reach of Internet radio has expanded quickly to over half of online Americans, global expansion and distribution to mobile spaces are still germinating. In many cases the per-listener impression impact of a star act does not approach that of broadcast, even when critics talk about millions of streams, and for long-tail artists it is all upside as streaming scales.

Presumably, the expansion of Internet radio will also quiet the morality play staged around its growth.


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