To Stream or Not to Stream: On Spotify and Sharing Music for Free

The way consumers access and experience music is significant. How music is being made available is changing, and changing fast. On Sept. 9, U2 released their most recent album Songs of Innocence which was available for free via iTunes. In contrast, Taylor Swift took all of her songs off Spotify earlier this November, leaving many fans wondering whether she produces music for art or for monetary gain. Does the way an artist share their music with the public change the music’s artistic value?

Swift believes that, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” It would be one thing if Swift’s new album did not generate substantial revenue. However, her new album 1989 is the first to go platinum this year, with 1.287 million copies sold in its first week, the most successful record debut since 2002.

Daniel Ek, the owner and founder of Spotify, wrote a response to Swift, entitled “$2 Billion.” “Taylor Swift is absolutely right: music is art, art has real value, and artists deserve to be paid for it,” he began. “[Spotify’s] whole reason for existence is to help fans find music and help artists connect with fans…Spotify has paid more than two billion dollars to labels, publishers and collecting societies for distribution to songwriters and recording artists.”

Spotify awards 30 to 40 thousand dollars to the artist for what is equivalent to ten plays on a radio station, whereas illegally pirating music off of the internet pays artists exactly zero dollars in return. “[We have paid artists] two billion dollars’ worth of listening that would have happened with zero or little compensation to artists and songwriters [had the music been pirated]…” says Ek.

Swift responded to this in Time by saying, “Everybody’s complaining about how music sales are shrinking, but nobody’s changing the way they’re doing things. They keep running towards streaming, which is, for the most part, what has been shrinking the numbers of paid album sales.” Although many people in the music industry believe this, the numbers simply do not support the claim.

U2 released their album Songs of Innocence for free on iTunes September 9, 2014, giving away in all around 500,000 copies. Time believes that, “ [U2] insert[ed] their new album, Songs of Innocence, into all of our libraries without consent…everything about Songs of Innocence seems desperate to be the global, cultural ‘experience’ fix U2 needs to survive, even if it means giving away the album for ‘free.’” Obviously Songs of Innocence is not as renowned as U2’s most popular album The Joshua Tree (released in 1989). However, Songs of Innocence has helped The Joshua Tree, and U2, stay relevant. The week following the free album launch, 24 of the bands most popular songs reached the top 200 on iTunes.

However, the response was not as overwhelmingly positive as these statistics appear to claim. During a Facebook Q&A, one fan asked lead singer Bono, “Can you please never release an album on iTunes that automatically downloads to people’s playlists ever again? It’s really rude.” Bono responded, “Oops. I’m sorry about that. I had this beautiful idea, and we got carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing. Drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”

U2 shared their music for free with the intention to share it with the largest population they possibly could. However, U2 will not be the only band to experience the backlash of releasing a completely free album. Paul Quirk, president of the UK-based Entertainment Retail Association says, “U2 has had their career, but if one of the biggest rock bands in the world are prepared to give away their new album for free, how can we really expect the public to spend 10 pounds [$16 dollars] on an album by a newcomer?” Quirk claims that the album release “…devalues music, it alienates the majority of people who don’t use iTunes and it disappoints those who prefer to shop in physical stores since few shops had U2 stock available.”

The sentiment was there, however, in both U2’s and Taylor Swift’s actions. Perhaps Radiohead has found the middle ground to these two drastically different responses. In Rainbows, Radiohead’s seventh studio album, was first released Oct. 10, 2007, on the bands website as a digital download. Fans were encouraged to “pay what you wish” (even nothing) and a “digital tip jar” was set up to collect completely voluntary payments. On Dec. 4, an $80 deluxe box set was made available online. Finally, on Jan. 1, the physical CD and digital album were available for purchase.

In Rainbows was incredibly important and influential for two main reasons. New Musical Express writes that, “First: because it showed that the best response to music piracy is to explore new, legal ways to get music into fans’ hands…Second: “In Rainbows absolutely didn’t kill the idea that music should be paid for, [it instead showed that a] one-size-fits-all price for an album was long overdue a rethink… [not just because fans] wanted to pay less or nothing, but because plenty of fans wanted to pay more.” Bono himself said of the In Rainbows release that is was, “courageous and imaginative in trying to figure out some new relationship with their audience… Such imagination and courage are in short supply right now.” •