Why Taylor Swift Is Wrong About Spotify

I aim to stick to politics and current events on this blog. Nonetheless, it being the beginning of holiday shopping season, I thought I'd wade into a business/entertainment topic because I think it ties to some of the broader themes that I try to convey on here. 

Pop superstar Taylor Swift recently pulled all of her music from streaming service Spotify. Swift explained that she believes that music has value, and that people ought to be pay for it. Essentially, she did not like the idea that people could stream her albums for free (and that she received very little in royalties from Spotify). 

Several other country artists have followed in Swift's footsteps and pulled their latest albums from the streaming service. 

Additionally, Patrick Carney of the rock band the Black Keys (who refuse to offer their music to Spotify) ripped U2 for selling their new album to Apple, which in turn, gave the album away (other artists similarly bashed U2 for the move). 

I think that Swift and Carney's logic and decisions are wrong on multiple levels. 

First, as Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl noted, getting people to listen to your music, by whatever method, will lead to people buying concert tickets if they like what they hear. Indeed, I also think it might lead many people to buy the album if they like what they hear. 

I know that in my case, if I'm on the fence about an album, or I listen to a single from a new band or artist, and like what I hear, I'll Spotify the album, and if I like it, I'll buy it.

Spotify does not give someone total control of the music unless they pay for Spotify Premium, which costs a monthly fee. Put another way, you can't Spotify an album in the car, at the gym, or sitting on a park bench or on the beach on a nice day without paying a fee. 

People like having these options. As such, they are likely to buy music they like and/or pay for a premium streaming service (and even such a service is only as good as your data plan and your cellular reception). 

More broadly, I have several other objections to Swift's logic. First, putting music on Spotify doesn't make it any more free than airing it on radio—as artists have done for decades. People can listen to it, but as explained above, they don't have control to listen wherever they want and on whatever device they want. 

Putting music on Spotify is akin to academics sharing their research and their ideas in journals, or on blogs, without being paid. That doesn't mean we don't also write books, or that our ideas are worthless.

Rather, getting your work, or your ideas out to as many people as possible helps to bolster the parts of your work that you sell. If people like what they see, they'll support you in other ways—be it buying books, concert tickets, or even hiring someone. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Swift, the Black Keys, and other artists and record labels who either remove content from Spotify, or delay putting it on there to avoid cannibalizing sales in the initial months after release are adapting to our new digital world in exactly the wrong way. 

It feels to me like music labels, even more than other established industries, cling to atavistic practices and conceptions of their business. They put out singles in advance of albums, release albums with major publicity campaigns, and attempt to charge as much as possible for albums, etc. 

Recently, her label delayed Diana Krall's new album release by four months because of an illness that prevented her from promoting the project. I wondered to myself: why not try new, digital methods of promotion (perhaps a creative Youtube campaign), rather than miss the lucrative Christmas shopping season? 

Additionally, over the last few years record labels have successfully driven the prices of digital albums up over $10 (and the price of individual songs over $1), and they've fought zealously to safeguard their business through the use of digital rights management software. 

But I think they are fighting a losing battle (they already lost the battle over DRM) and need to reconceptualize how they go about promoting and disseminating music.

The best companies in our new globalized, digital economy (Apple, Google, Amazon, etc.) have found ways to make us want things that we didn't know we wanted or needed. They've offered new experiences, or new products, and they've been rewarded handsomely.

By contrast, companies who have tried to resist or limit change (be they brick and mortar book stores, Blackberry, etc) have struggled mightily, with many ceasing to exist. 

To me, trying to limit how much Amazon, Google, or Apple discount digital music and/or trying to keep albums from streaming services is exactly the sort of rearguard, defensive action that signifies an industry (and artists) that doesn't get it. Rather than trying to safeguard their business, labels would be better off trying to invent a new business model. 

In fact, many in the music industry acknowledge the need for change. For example, U2 is working with Apple to create some sort of new musical experience to encourage people to buy albums.

But artists and record companies would be wise to focus on getting music out by whatever means necessary, and using it to win fans over. 

Why not sell digital albums for $5 if you don't believe in streaming them for free? As Grohl noted, if people like what they hear, they'll buy concert tickets, fan club memberships, merchandise, concert bootlegs, etc. Maybe they'd spend more for deluxe albums, expanded albums, albums with explanations from the artist about the genesis of each song, etc. 

Alternatively, why not consider some sort of creative bundle model? After years of holding out, Garth Brooks launched his catalog digitally by selling a $30 bundle of all of his albums, including a new album, and another new album next year. 

Other creative artists have found endless ways to motivate fans to buy content—Bruce Springsteen launched a concert bootleg series this year (something Pearl Jam has offered for ages), and Radiohead once allowed fans to decide how much to pay for an album. 

The biggest threat to musicians and record companies isn't that people will stream albums. Rather, it's that if artists refuse to stream albums and albums become increasingly expensive, people won't hear them. Consumers will Spotify what's available, or listen to music through other streaming services like Amazon Prime, and will never get the chance to hear great music from artists who eschew those forums. 

These people will never have the chance to buy tickets or merchandise. They will represent a lost opportunity. 

There are endless potential business models that might replace the traditional model—selling albums for a few dollars to anyone who buys a concert ticket or a fan club membership, record labels starting their own streaming services, some sort of enhanced experience (a la what Bono and Apple have planned), etc. 

But refusing to change, and instead trying to protect profits by refusing to adapt to the technological world in which we live, strikes me as the option most likely to kill the music business, and do damage to music as an art form. 

Much of this blog also applies to the book business, the newspaper industry, and other similar businesses struggling to cope with the digital world and the damage it has done to their bottom lines. 

I write all of this with a deep sympathy for artists, writers, reporters, and others affected by the seismic change wrought by the digital world.

I understand wanting to be fairly compensated for your work. After all, as an academic, all I have are my ideas. Yet, being less fan friendly and trying to preserve a model that does not really accord with the times seems like a surefire way to kill an industry instead of saving it.