Feature: The Spotify Debate



We weigh in on the Spotify debate; was Taylor right to take her music away from the world’s largest music streaming service?

Country star turned pop giant Taylor Swift reached the coveted platinum mark for her newest album, 1989. Selling nearly 1.3 million copies in the first week, the album is expected to have the largest first week sales since Eminem sold 1.3 million copies of The Eminem Show way back in 2002. This album could be one of the most important albums for a slightly downtrodden music industry in quite some time, and not just because of the amount of copies that it’s sold; Taylor Swift’s handling of 1989’s release is an interesting insight into the way that the music industry feels about its future, for a number of different reasons.

Taylor’s milestone has garnered a lot of media attention recently and not because it’s a large amount of copies to sell. Swift should be congratulated for selling so many in such a short amount of time; 1989 is the first album of 2014 to reach this milestone. In 2012, Taylor Swift released Red, which went on to sell 3 million copies, and in 2013, One Direction’s Midnight Memories sold 4 million – all figures that add up to portray an industry experiencing a steady decline. The RIAA (Recording Industry of America) puts out a list of the top selling albums of the year, where the top ten will all be platinum certified. In 2013, the tenth best selling album of the year was Beyoncé’s self titled album, which sold an extraordinary 2.3 million copies in the last 13 days of 2013. Compare this to the second best selling album of the 2014 so far, Coldplay’s Ghost Stories, racking up only 383,000 copies sold, the problems of the industry are really fleshed out.

Many industry experts attribute this concerning amount of sales to the new popularity of music streaming websites, namely Spotify and Pandora. The way in which the average music listener now gets their fix of their favourite artists and new releases has been completely revamped by these, driving home the way many music lovers are calling the modern era the start of the ‘death of the full length album’. It’s the singles that are garnering the majority of attention leaving it clear why this trend is occurring; in an era where it’s extremely easy to press a few buttons and listen to whatever takes your fancy, it’s understandable that many people don’t feel they have to plod through filler tracks to get to the beloved singles. With 60 songs that selling over one million this year – Pharrell William’s ‘Happy’ selling the most with 1.65 million copies – compared to the singular album that has reached the same heights, it’s clear that the outlook for the future isn’t too great. So much so, that Spotify is now able to boast revenue that is 13% higher than that of iTunes.


Yet, Taylor Swift has taken a slightly different approach than the average pop star with her most recent release. Not only has she put an emphasis on the physical copies of her album, she has also somewhat started a beef between herself and Spotify, potentially paving the way for many other artists to follow her.  Even though it would be logical for Swift to release the album on as many different platforms as possible in order get the greatest amount of coverage and plays, she has decided to not release it on Spotify. This is a tactic that she employed in 2012 for her album Red, eventually putting it back onto the site shortly after. But this time, she’s gone one step further; Taylor has even has gone so far as to completely remove her entire discography from the streaming website. This may be seen as a blow to what Taylor Swift could have potentially earned from such a hyped up and eagerly anticipated album, but it could be almost as damning to Spotify as it is to her. Before the release and subsequent snub of Spotify with this release, Taylor Swift, the global superstar that she is, was one of Spotify’s most popular artists with16 million subscribers listening to a Taylor Swift song in the month of October. The CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek, claimed in a recent blog post that Taylor Swift could expect to earn $6 million a year from Spotify streams, whilst also pointing to others such as Daft Punk and Ed Sheeran, both artists extremely popular on Spotify but also benefitting from album sales.

However, it is this potential revenue that Swift has critiqued in the past. Each time a song is played on Spotify, the artist receives royalties of between $0.006 and $0.0084. Swift, along with other major artists such as Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and The Black Keys, have all been vocal about their views on the subject, with both Yorke and the Black Keys also having previously removed albums of from the system due to arguments involving these royalty figures. Swift even went as far as to write an article for the Wall Street Journal concerning this, where she argued that the amount of money is effectively nothing compared to what an artist should be getting paid for their work, and stated that;

“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.”


Spotify claim that they are paying out a fair amount of royalties to the artists, with 70% of their revenue going back to the artists, which adds up to $1 billion. Yet, musicians have argued that this revenue does not directly benefit artists; instead, it goes straight into the pockets of music labels and the managers of these artists.

Taylor’s refusal has also carved out a way for her to gain a fairer revenue from her music, something she, and many other artists, believe she deserves. Swift has put a lot of work into the actual physical copies of 1989, especially the CDs. Within the CDs, there are extensive linear notes along with voice memos and 13 exclusive polaroid-looking photo prints that are exclusive to the CD copies only. Whilst the CD business is by no means a small one, this is the kind of promotion that’s sure to rejuvenate a format under attack from the easily available music online and a culture that does not put a premium on the physical copies of music. This kind of extra content is sure to entice many a hardcore fan of hers, and the figures have clearly shown that this technique has worked; of the 1.2 million copies that were sold in the first week, over half of these have been from CD sales.

These kinds of CD sales are quite extraordinary for the modern day, where music downloads have sped past them as being the most popular way to purchase and own music. The sales figures have posed a new, but rather familiar question for music producers, music labels and music consumers alike: is the CD of the past now the future? While Taylor Swift’s venture into this new way of selling her music has turned out to be a way that has potentially benefitted her, her case is an anomaly and shouldn’t be taken on board by too many others artists. When you have an established and loyal fan base like Taylor Swift’s, it’s hardly a risk to take away this music from services that are so well known and widely used, such as Spotify. But, if a band that has a significantly smaller following than Swift’s is thinking of taking a similar route with their album release, it is likely a risk that is too large to take. While Spotify has been critiqued for unfair royalties, it cannot be argued that it is a service that has helped many up-and-coming bands get a foothold in the music industry and start to establish a following, as well as helping give fans the ability to listen to their albums before purchasing them in other forms. So, while it is likely that Spotify will continue to dominate within the music industry, Taylor Swift’s outburst and distancing from Spotify may tempt many other artists like herself, who are able to absorb the potential losses of consumers streaming their albums, but ultimately this course of action probably won’t be a regular feature for many artists into the near future.

The problem with Spotify and other music streaming websites in the same vein is that they are not completely transparent in their handling of royalties. Although it may seem difficult to sympathise with large music corporations and artists that earn sizable amounts of money, the problem, it seems, with music streaming websites, is that they legitimize the thought that music is a product which should be free. If their way of thinking becomes fully accepted in society, the downfall of the whole music industry is likely to follow straight after.