The teen country queen turned international pop star puts a stop to streaming her albums, but at what cost? In a world of free music—from the rip programs such as Napster and Pirate Bay to the conglomerate tune towns such as Spotify and Pandora—one artist takes home the Grammy’s and shuts off the free gravy train: Taylor Swift.
With the upcoming 1989 album release, Swift and her team of lawyer masterminds took the Swedish Spotify brand head on by announcing conditions for which listeners on Spotify could hear the new album for free and which ones could not.
Negotiations were reportedly heated, with Swift holding out that international listeners could have the CD for free while American listeners should have to pay the premium, and it put a wrinkle in the music streaming business plan. Swift pulled her music off the site, and no one has gotten a successful chorus of “I Knew You Were Trouble” from the service since. She shut down the streaming just like Kanye tried to shut her down at the MTV Music Awards—and it wasn’t pretty.
On basic principle, the idea that an artist should have free reign over when, where and how their music plays seems pretty straight forward. Who’s going to deny an artist’s right to choose? But after signing over licensing to a company, what artist still has the right? If you think the artist is still king, then we’ve got a problem, because it only gets more complicated from there.
Let’s start with the facts.
In 2013, Taylor Swift made over $39 million between a platinum selling record, a Diet Coke deal, a Keds deal, being the new face of Elizabeth Arden and more. It’s no doubt the girl is a powerhouse. Indeed, merchandising and sponsorships of her brand are worth many more millions, especially with the upcoming release of her new album, 1989.
And Spotify, created by a generation that grew up taking part in the illegal downloading game of music, became one of the most successful (and legal) free music streaming companies in the world. In response to Swift’s decision, Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify, said, “Spotify has paid more than two billion dollars to labels, publishers and collecting societies for distribution to songwriters and recording artists,” also making the point that without Spotify, those listens wouldn’t have ceased, but would have continued through illegal downloading, and the artists would have never received any money for those plays.
In relation, artists and producers receive no money when an album or single plays on the radio, and historically speaking, most of the money that artists make comes from the selling of merchandise and concert tours, rather than actual albums. Especially with the rise of the internet, music ripping and an ever-changing music industry bent on staying relevant, music has been the gateway to making millions in licensing. So why take Spotify down for at least paying a little bit when people were starting to lose money?
There’s a saying that goes: never do anything you’re good at for free. For a big star, with all the media attention focused on her every move, to put her foot down for herself and all the little guys trying to make their breaks out there, it’s a big deal. She has the attention, and its focus isn’t poorly placed. But the bigger problem here isn’t that Taylor Swift just wanted more money, it was that she wanted more money by taking advantage of marketing scheming rather than the “let art be art” vibe she presumed to take.
The agreement Swift attempted to come to with Spotify would have been hugely disadvantageous to her American fans who would have to buy the album is they wanted to hear it, while she was providing her music for free in other parts of the world where her fanbase is not so strong.
While it is truly ingenious marketing from Team Swift, it sets up a slippery slope for Spotify, who would have to concede to such claims by all artists or be unfair. For Americans to have the same service on their phones or otherwise, they’d have to download a Virtual Private Network to change their website source.
And while Spotify is paying a little—and certainly more than radio and illegal downloads—what’s so different about the international streaming service than the at-home waves we get from on our car FM radios?
While it may seem hard for Ek to go against such a music force as Swift, it did set a standard for the future of the streaming industry. Famous or not, powerful or not, streaming has to be the same across the globe for fans everywhere. And while it doesn’t seem fair to Swift, it certainly seems fair to her listeners, who are ultimately going to give her millions for crooning anyway.
When Swift pulled out of Spotify, it sent a pretty clear message. My music doesn’t come for free. But with the conditions she was proposing, that Americans pay while international listeners can continue to listen for free, didn’t seem to send the girl power message the artist wants us to think that it does. Instead, the Swift corporation went against the Spotify corporation, and the only people who lost were the listeners.