RECENTLY, I’ve been puzzled over how to frame the Taylor Swift vs. Spotify fight. Having to take sides in that battle — between a plutocrat popstar and an exploitative streaming service — really makes me feel like I live in a dystopia. It’s sort of an illusion of choice. “Maybe I should just ignore it?” crossed my mind a few times.
In any case, the British rock musician Billy Bragg — a longtime hero of mine, who I used to see play regularly at the “old” 930 Club in Washington, DC — has framed the issue exactly right.
This comes from his Facebook post.
What a shame that Taylor Swift’s principled stand against those who would give her music away for free has turned out to be nothing more than a corporate power play. On pulling her music from Spotify recently, she made a big issue of the fact that the majority of the streaming service’s users listen to her tracks for nothing rather than signing up to the subscription service.
“I don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free” she said in a statement to Yahoo last week.
These worthy sentiments have been somewhat undermined by Swift making her new album and back catalogue available on Google’s new Music Key streaming service…..which also offers listeners a free service alongside a premium subscription tier.
Given that this year is the first to fail to produce a new million selling album, I can understand Taylor Swift wanting to maximise her opportunities with the new record – and it worked: she shifted 1.28m copies of 1989 in the first week of sale.
But she should just be honest with her fans and say “sorry, but Sergey Brin gave me a huge amount of money to be the headline name on the marquee for the launch of You Tube Music Key and so I’ve sold my soul to Google”.
If Ms Swift was truly concerned about perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free, she should be removing her material from You Tube, not cosying up to it. The de facto biggest streaming service in the world, with all the content available free, You Tube is the greatest threat to any commercially based streaming service.
You might ask yourself why Google are setting up a commercial streaming service that will ultimately have to compete with their own You Tube behemoth? My hunch is that they are following a ‘Starbucks strategy’: it doesn’t matter if your own coffee shops on every corner are competing with one another, so long as they ultimately put all of your rivals out of business.
Google are going after Spotify and Taylor Swift has just chosen sides. That’s her prerogative as a savvy businesswoman – but please don’t try to sell this corporate power play to us as some sort of altruistic gesture in solidarity with struggling music makers.”
Bragg has been an eloquent voice for artists rights, and he hits the matter on the head here.
UPDATE: There’s now been some criticism of Bragg as a toady for Spotify or something, which is not entirely fair — he seems to take no money from them, but makes regular playlists for the service. He is not purely disinterested in his relationship, so I’m providing a well-balanced story about the current controversy between Swift, Bragg and the streamers.
Here’s part of it:
In Spotify, Bragg has apparently found a streaming platform that he can live with. Why wouldn’t he be concerned that Google could ruin it for him if Music Key takes off and overpowers the competition? But the same can be said for Swift. The key difference here is that Bragg, a veteran with a passionate and loyal audience, has public credibility on his side, but he lacks the sheer brute market force of Swift, whose presence on Spotify now would help shore up the convenient, elegant, one-stop listening experience the platform promises as it prepares to go head-to-head with a powerful new competitor. Bragg has to care at least a bit about Swift’s business decisions, but the situation isn’t necessarily true in reverse.
Bragg sees streaming as something musicians should come to terms with, despite what he acknowledges are its faults.
UPDATE # 2: Bragg has since “apologised” to Swift — he says he misunderstood something about her relationship to Google — but argues:
The fact that our music is widely available for free on the internet is a problem that all artists struggle with. While so much material is instantly accessible on YouTube, subscription streaming services will always find it a challenge to build enough users to make music viable for artists, who at the moment seem to be at the end of the queue for remuneration.
He’s still making an important point.