Joe Rogan, Spotify, and the music streaming business model

Kat readers may be aware of the recent dispute over podcaster Joe Rogan. First Neil Young, followed by Joni Mitchell, demanded that Spotify, the exclusive distributor of Rogan's podcast, reportedly the most-listened to podcast in the world, remove their music from the platform. They alleged that some of Rogan's podcasts were spreading misinformation about Covid-19.

Most of the discussion that has followed has focused on the tension between freedom of expression, the obligations of the host platform (in the reported words of the CEO of Spotify--“It is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor”), and the interests of public health.

It appears that Spotify has removed seventy of Mr. Rogan's podcasts and provided guidelines for any podcast that deals with the pandemic. However, Mr. Rogan's podcast program (for which Spotify reportedly paid $100 million dollars, reflecting the monetizing potential for the company derived from Mr. Rogan's base of listeners) will remain available for Spotify subscribers.

Against that background, Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker magazine, has argued that the "Joe Rogan affair" also highlights the imbalance of power between creators, on the one hand, and the publishers/commercializers/distributors, on the other. Of course, there were creators before the advent of the copyright system. Distinctive about the copyright system was the appearance of these intermediaries, be those who reproduce the works, or those who distribute them.

Such intermediaries expanded the reach and commercial potential of creators. But the question, from the 17th century onwards, has been—at what price? Is it a win-win situation, or does it lead to the imbalance of power between the two sides? Fast forward from the Licensing Act and the Statute of Anne to the present. When it comes to the current state of music and its modes of distribution, Ross is unequivocal--
The Swedish streaming service has fostered a music-distribution model that is singularly hostile to the interests of working musicians.
In his view, the goal of music distribution in the era of digitization should be to enable as many musicians as possible to earn a reasonable sum for their efforts. Such was the vision undergirding the notion of the "long tail", which posited that the on-line marketplace would provide virtual shelf-space for products that bricks-and-mortar stores were unable to display. In a similar fashion, the on-line world would make more music assessable than ever before (even as compared with the muti-story record stores of old).

The general validity of the "long tail" has been called into question, here. As for Spotify and the musical artists that it compensates, Ross asserts that the terms of the commercial arrangements have—
... reaped huge profits for major labels and for superstars while decimating smaller-scale musical incomes—as perfect an embodiment of the winner-takes-all neoliberal economy as has yet been devised.
What are those commercial terms? Simple, really—Spotify pays out to artists per stream, on average, an estimated four-tenths of one U.S. cent. This means that if you are a superstar artist and given the size of Spotify's subscriber base, such terms may not be a bad arrangement. So, Ross reports, Taylor Swift, enjoyed almost ninety-eight million streams in one day following the release of “folklore”.

But if you a musician on the less than highest rungs of the music popularity level, four-tenths of one U.S. cent may not take you very far financially. Ross brings the words of Ross Grady, a keen observer of the music scene from the U.S. state of North Carolina, who stated on Twitter—
I love that people are looking for alternatives to Spotify and I don’t know how to explain to them that it has never been ethical or sustainable to expect to have unfettered access to the entire history of recorded music for $10/month.
Ross points to alternative platforms, such as Amazon and Apple, which reportedly offer more favorable (although "not exactly lavish") commercial terms. Unclear is whether the more favorable terms of compensation on a platform with a smaller subscription base will, at the end of the day, provide the artist with more income.

Also, in pointing to these alternatives, the phrase—"damning by faint praise"—comes to mind, especially if one is concerned about hi-tech market concentration. One can imagine a dream sequence in which the likes of Amazon or Apple, at the end of the day, ultimately want to displace Spotify at the apex of on-line music distribution. In doing so, however, one can ask whether the artist would be financially better off

Ross pushes forward, based on the notion of the "devaluation of musical labor". He writes—
The magic of Spotify is its convenience. You can get almost any music you want, any time. Apple Music offers you the same gorgeous infinitude. What if, in order to support musicians that you care about, you were asked to give up the very idea that all music should be available on demand?
Ross makes one further point. This devaluation of musical labor has been accompanied by "obliterating artistic identity through the operation of its notorious algorithm." The last refuge of the proud artist is recognition, so even if the financial gains in making music are modest, one can still benefit from "non-pecuniary reputation." But, for Ross, that also may be--"going, going, gone".

Both pictures are in the public domain.

Joe Rogan, Spotify, and the music streaming business model Joe Rogan, Spotify, and the music streaming business model Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Thursday, February 17, 2022 Rating: 5

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