Last Monday, Spotify, much to the surprise of the music industry, announced an end to its beta
of allowing artists to directly upload music to its platform. Even if a bit sudden, the news made sense on its face value. Distribution isn’t actually a good way to make money
, high profile artists kept seeing song leaks,
other platforms already offer the same features with built-in communities, and major labels, who according to industry reporting are back in licensing contracts with Spotify, clearly didn’t like it. All of that is to say: if this was an obviously bad idea, why did anyone think it’d work?!
For example, here are a few headlines from last fall that greeted the original news: “A New Spotify Initiative Makes the Big Record Labels Nervous” (The New York Times
), “Spotify Gives Artists Another Way to Circumvent Record Labels” (Bloomberg)
, and “A new Spotify initiative could spell trouble for record labels (or kill Spotify)” (The Next Web
). The media narrative around Spotify is so skewed in favor of the company that any
sign of the company challenging the established record label is greeted with bated breath. Even when the company’s business proposition is clearly ill-advised and under thought. Headlines and the initial framing of stories assume Spotify’s new business model will work and leaves any critique for the closing paragraphs.
This way of reporting so tightly mirrors the company’s own self-told narrative spin it glosses over any potential concern of workers. Spotify’s employees that are needed to make this new program work are unheard of and musicians, who are both labor and consumers, are frequently underheard unless it comes attached to a Spotify press release, like the Chicago rapper Noname who was frequently cited in the original press run. Last September, in my short-lived paid newsletter Dollar Fractions—the name was bad, yes—I explored why direct uploads from an artist’s point-of-view offered very little. So, I wanted to include an excerpt of that newsletter with a bit of light editing:
Now, with a self-upload feature, Spotify is cutting out more of the label’s traditional middleman role and giving some artists more control and transparency over their work (and money gained from it since they don’t have to split royalties with other parties) than a label can provide. But of course, choosing to go that route as an emerging artist still means foregoing the vast resources and backing of a label — which may be too much of a risk for most to take.
The word “choosing” here is working overtime. One issue in music industry coverage is this idea that if artists can just put out their music freely, then why would they need a label in the first place? The assumption is that all labels do is put out music and collect checks. This both undervalues the monopoly that major labels hold on the industry in terms of promotion and also how little power artists with zero industry connections hold in terms of being able to be heard. A state doesn’t promote a lottery with highlights of scratch-off losers.
I don’t say this as an endorsement of the traditional exploitative major label system. A label in this instance could be Atlantic Records, Rough Trade, or even just a dude who happens to know a couple of curators and understand the basics of music distribution. None of those businesses will shift due to this Spotify for Artists update. If an artist wants to get on the radio, they need a label or at least a team that can work radio stations, which is something that a single person can’t do. If an artist wants to get consistent press coverage they’ll need to hire public relations support. If a band wants to go on tour… I think you get the idea. None of that changed.
My question is this: Who is the winner in a world where labels don’t exist? Eventually, all artists will be able to upload their music to Spotify…then what? How does that music find an audience? How does an artist build and sustain a fan base? Who is footing the bill to record their music? All of these are things that labels, big or small, provide on top of any other connections in terms of live touring, licensing deals, etc. Never underestimate music industry middlemen, they’ll always find a new home.