On July 30th, Musically published an interview with Spotify CEO David Ek where he discussed topics such as Spotify’s recent financial boosts during the COVID-19 pandemic and how artists have fared throughout the streaming era. Ek turned heads with the following comments:
“There is a narrative fallacy here, combined with the fact that, obviously, some 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.”
The problem with Ek’s comments are not only that they run counter to our notion of how artists should be able to work and create the best music possible — and still make a living — but they also seem to ignore how current artists already face increased pressures in the streaming era without having to worry about ramping up production. The statement also seems to discard veteran artists who may struggle to compete with younger, savvier artists who may not be able to write a great song but sure as hell can curate an Instagram page. Where streaming may be the saving grace for some artists, it can be a far more frustrating model to negotiate for others.
The streaming era is defined purely by how many plays a song receives, resulting in cases where artists cram in more songs than warranted on a given project. (The most infamous example of this is Migos’ Culture II, which ran a course of one hour and 46 minutes over 24 tracks.) Under different circumstances, there’s plenty of fat to trim off that project. However, as a product of the streaming age, each play on every track counts towards making a sale and generates revenue. And every additional song has the potential to reach another playlist.
Ek’s bread and butter are frequent releases and artists constantly engaging with fans. As good as this sounds on paper, the problem lies with the increased burden that puts on the artists themselves. The heightened pressure to constantly release music will add stress to the artist but also short-circuit their creative process. Realistically speaking, music is a business, but there’s also the passion that allows artists to create work that not only is beloved by fans but celebrated over a period of time. The pressure that’s placed on musicians can cause that passion to wane, create burnout, and potentially rob the music world of that next great record or song. With the demand for artists to increase the frequency in which they drop music, the demand for touring and self-promotion also increases. Expectations are high if you’re a young musician looking to break out in these times; you need to constantly release projects, tour, and push merch to remain afloat (both in terms of keeping relevant and making ends meet).
Financially, the streaming era doesn’t cater to everybody. Back in December 2019, cellist Zoe Keating revealed on Twitter that she received a $753 check from Spotify as compensation for 206,011 streams. That equates to royalties of $0.0037 per stream. If you’re a young artist looking to capitalize on the benefits of streaming, Keating’s case demonstrates that increased exposure is an absolute necessity. Instead of taking one’s time to create and build up a fan base, musicians can fall into traps that promise more than they can deliver, including one-sided record deals. So, an artist’s legal battle with her label may result in less musical output, which, as Ek suggests, can be poison in this model. With artists taking away such a small percentage from streams after record labels take their piece of the pie, what are the artists actually left with?
Emerging artists aren’t the only ones who have to deal with the pressures and stresses of the streaming era. It also affects veteran artists who are used to the classic album cycles curated by label heads and PR teams. Nowadays, artists need to act as the promoters of their own product. Whether it’s an instant hit in a TikTok video or an Instagram post that goes viral, the most successful artists today often self-promote using the most modern tools accessible to them. However, older artists are less likely to be as savvy when it comes to the use of social media, and the idea of putting their whole lives on the internet isn’t something they’re used to. In an industry that once respected and even rewarded a degree of mystique, artists now need to offer a piece of themselves beyond their music.
Veteran artists may also find that they are constantly playing catch-up in a model where more is better and quality may very well get trumped at times by quantity. As Ek says, those used to releasing music every three or four years and believing it has the type of longevity it once had may not fare as well in the current model. In 2020, music drops every Friday at midnight, it’s listened to and discussed, and by the next week, the hype train for the next wave of releases starts with the previous wave seemingly forgotten. Any time to rejuvenate, recoup, or refresh the creative pool before heading back to the drawing board has been eliminated and replaced with the urgency to create more “content.”
A model that rewards what’s trending and gaining the most clicks can impact even the biggest veteran stars. Eminem has notoriously operated under a dated release model. Promo, announcement, more promo, and a single, followed by the project has been the recipe for Eminem and for many other artists who made names for themselves through the old models labels once used. However, even Eminem can struggle to remain relevant and compete with younger talent, like a Lil Baby, who frequently releases projects and also maintains a major social media presence. The bigger the social media platform you hold, the more exposure your releases receives. And if you’re unable to finesse a social media account the way Snoop Dogg or 50 Cent does, chances are your exposure is lower and the streaming numbers suffer as a result of that. In Eminem’s case, his first-week sales for 2020’s Music to Be Murdered Bydeclined by 218,000 worldwide from his last album, 2018’s Kamikaze. No, Eminem isn’t irrelevant or starving, but if he’s having trouble keeping up in the current model, imagine how thousands of lesser-known artists, new or older, are faring.
With so many major companies, such as Apple, Spotify, Amazon, and Google, having a stake in the streaming wars, the current model isn’t going away anytime soon. We’d like to think that means that a better version of the current system is on its way. And that’s what’s so troubling about Ek’s comments. Instead of working to create an environment conducive to all kinds of creative processes, where artists are fairly compensated for their work, he seems to envision a system where only a certain type of artist will survive and the rest be damned. That’s not a mindset that respects artists, and it sure isn’t one that cares much about music.
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