Bad Blood: “Taylor Swift” vs. Spotify

November 3, 2014
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Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 12.09.21 PMAs the number of release windows for media continues to expand, the “windowing” of a given media text has shifted accordingly. Although windowing has typically been a term reserved for motion pictures, in which a film goes through theatrical, home video, cable, and network distribution windows in roughly that order, the advent of streaming media has created similar patterns in television—where some Hulu series have week-long exclusivity for cable subscribers—and music, creating a broader “crisis” in distribution that the industry is working to solve.

Within music, where no such windowing has existed, streaming services like Spotify and Rdio have created a distribution problem that a number of labels have been pushing against. Whereas in film we see the challenging of existing windows through day-and-date streaming releases, with Spotify we see artists—such as Beyoncé and Coldplay—actively withholding their albums at release to force users (including those who subscribe to these services rather than streaming music for free) to acquire them through legal—or, depending on the user, illegal—means, creating selective windowing.

Spotify has value for artists and labels: on demand streaming has become a metric within the Billboard Hot 100 charts, for example, and the service’s 40 million users represent a cross-section of listeners that may not buy music now but could buy music in the future, making it a valuable promotional platform. However, the issue is that the infinitesimally small royalties paid by Spotify and other streaming services—which have drawn criticism from artists and labels—limit this value. Accordingly, while having your music on Spotify has promotional value, the remuneration is significantly less than if artists sell albums or singles on iTunes, or convince you to go out to a store to buy a deluxe version of the album featuring exclusive material.

Big Machine Records and Taylor Swift have been at the center of this conflict for some time. Swift’s album Red, which debuted in October 2012, was an early example of a label withholding a marquee album from streaming services—while each single from the album became available near its release, the full album was not made available for streaming until the summer of 2013. At the time, Billboard reported Big Marchine founder Scott Borchetta framing streaming as a “struggle,” arguing that “it doesn’t make sense to a small record company” compared to a larger conglomerate with thousands of albums to sell to Spotify.

The decision was controversial at the time, although there was no evidence that Spotify was fighting against it—the service simply did not have Red available, which Big Machine hoped would push users to go purchase the album. However, earlier this year Spotify went on the offensive, creating pages for albums that are being withheld from the service—including the latest albums from Coldplay and Beyoncé—that inform listeners that “the artist or their representatives have decided not to release this album on Spotify. We are working on it and hope they will change their mind soon.”

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Such a page has been in place for Swift’s 1989 since the album’s release last week, although as of this morning it is notably the only album page on Swift’s Spotify page. As widely reported, Big Machine has pulled all of Swift’s music—including “Shake It Off,” which had been the most streamed song on the service—in the midst of negotiations with Spotify, the most public move yet in the service’s battle with labels. In return, Spotify has begun using social media—including a blog post entitled “On Taylor Swift’s Decision to Remove Her Music form Spotify”—to call out Swift’s decision and incite her to “Stay Stay Stay,” a reference to a song from the now unavailable Red.

Spotify’s rhetoric is nearly identical to that of cable channels in the midst of carriage disputes—just last night, AMC used The Walking Dead to inform DirecTV subscribers that the channel’s contract with the satellite service is up soon, and that their provider is failing to negotiate in good faith. It’s a call to action, mirroring AMC’s conflict with Dish by asking the show’s large fanbase to become engaged in a public campaign to influence negotiations in their favor. In Spotify’s case, they are using social media to rally their 40 million users to spread the word using the #JustSayYes hashtag (itself taken from her song “Love Story”), and sharing a playlist of “What to Play While Taylor’s Away.”

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In part due to this messaging, most major news reports regarding the decision are framed in these terms: TIME suggests “Taylor Swift Just Removed Her Music From Spotify,” while Mashable—one of the first to report on the story, and who had reported on 1989’s absence from the service last week—implies that “Taylor Swift removes all music from Spotify after ‘1989’ bickering.” However, to frame this as Swift’s decision obscures the presence of the label, who Billboard reports—citing sources beyond conjecture and Spotify’s social media postings—is behind this decision as Big Machine asserts itself in the midst of an attempted sale. There is no evidence that Swift herself is behind this decision—while TIME cites a Wall Street Journal op-ed where Swift herself expresses concern regarding the streaming service, neither she nor Big Machine Records has made a public statement, meaning that any narrative has been created by Spotify to better position the company within ongoing negotiations.

Spotify’s choice to make this about the artist—never once acknowledging the existence of a label—highlights the challenge of getting users to invest in the full dimensions of why albums are held from Spotify. This is by all accounts not primarily a conflict with an artist whose principles are in opposition to streaming music, but rather a case where a label is leveraging the sales power of their biggest artist to challenge the economics of a still nascent, controversial distribution method, and where that artist—despite her ubiquity—is subject to their business decisions. But whereas Spotify vs. Scott Borchetta is a story for the trades, Spotify vs. Taylor Swift is a story for the masses, one Spotify hopes will create fewer blank spaces in their library.


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4 Responses to “ Bad Blood: “Taylor Swift” vs. Spotify ”

  1. Dackquiri on November 3, 2014 at 1:05 PM

    It’s also a story that focuses on an isolated artist who is in a place to sell so many albums this looks like wringing the fanbase for pennies. (Granted, this is a major label, and that’s generally not something any of them are adverse to, but there’s more to it than that.) 1989 was gonna make bank, Spotify or no, so this looks petty, but the stand labels are taking—while not unrelated to greed—is also about smaller bands. And how in decreasing the revenue from recorded music, it *increases* the amount of notoriety an act needs to make signing them, recording, producing, releasing and promoting their record worth the financial gamble. It will increase the size of fanbase an artist will need to accrue to be worth the investment, and, for major labels (but I’m seeing it apply to some indies as well) it will increase the likelihood they’ll strong-arm the act into pop crossover instead of expanding their fanbase at its core.

    Streaming is very much something the public wants. It’s very clear music consumption is heading towards that realm. But like many new consumer trends, we’ve dove into it headfirst without first crafting a sustainable model in the context of the industry at large.

    • Myles McNutt on November 3, 2014 at 1:17 PM

      Great point—this is largely unrepresentative of the broader philosophical argument regarding streaming, and yet is going to become the largest point of conflict between them. Big Machine tries to sell itself as a smaller label based on its current independence, but it is a major smaller label, and therefore is negotiating this on distinct terms to both larger majors and the indies you mention.

      The question becomes how this conflict can be claimed by smaller artists, and by the labels who represent them. They don’t have this kind of leverage, and therefore are going to need to participate in this discourse in other ways. The ability for smaller bands to draft into this conversation will be crucial to how the model’s definition of sustainability is determined.

  2. Nick Smith on November 3, 2014 at 7:13 PM

    I don’t feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for Spotify. Not that I like to side with mainstream record labels, but they’re well within their rights to handle their IP how they see fit. They don’t owe Spotify streaming rights just because Spotify and its users really really want them. The popularity of streaming does not require somebody to allow their music to be streamed.

    Big Machine is in the business of selling records. If they had let it go to Spotify, I probably would have just listened to the record on Spotify. But they did not, and I really wanted to hear it, so I plopped down 12 bucks and bought it in iTunes. I don’t imagine that I am anywhere close to being alone in my decision-making process. That seems to me like it was a good decision in terms of their bottom line.

    For Spotify to play the poor-me and how-dare-they-take-our-tunes-away just feels bogus to me. Artists see a comically small amount of royalties from allowing Spotify to stream their music. It is not a meaningful source of revenue in itself, and Spotify makes wads of cash selling subscriptions and advertising to access their art. Its primary utility to musicians who allow their music on there is as a marketing tool, helping to sell concert tickets, merchandise, and, to an obviously lesser extent, records.

    Taylor Swift’s brand has long since reached a stage in her career where the boost in visibility it might get from letting you stream the new record is not going to make up for the potential lost record sales from releasing it for free streaming simultaneously with its widespread release. She’s a dinosaur; one of the last musicians who can induce a critical mass of people to spend their money on records. She has achieved an old-school form of success in the music industry that is not dependent on the streaming population. It only makes sense that her business choices reflect that.

  3. […] debates frame it as Spotify vs. Taylor Swift, but it seems it’s more like Spotify vs. Big Machine, the record label. Sadly, artists and consumers are being dragged into the crossfire in an already […]