Source: Fortune Live Media, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As the new year approaches, millions of Spotify users have participated in “Spotify Wrapped”, an annual social media trend in which listeners and artists share their most listened-to songs, genres and more. But underneath this trend is the reality that capitalism is transforming our love of music into an instrument of exploitation. While Spotify labels itself “the largest driver of revenue to the music business today”, they pay artists next to nothing. On top of this, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek is investing $113 million in Helsing AI, a defence-tech startup that uses algorithmic data to produce “live maps of battlefields”.

Capitalism is killing music

The rise of streaming services revolutionized our relationship with recorded music. Within the span of a few years apps like Spotify overtook other forms of music consumption. By 2020 streaming services came to account for 62 per cent of global music revenue. Spotify alone tripled in valuation in 2021 alone. This incredible technology should be making music more accessible than ever, but the effects of the boom have not been felt downstream. Profits increased, but artists’ payouts decreased by 43 per cent from 2018 to 2020. The average payment is currently $0.0038 per stream. Non-featured performers (who worked on a project but aren’t listed by name) make less, if anything at all. Furthermore, Spotify and most major streaming services use pro-rata revenue sharing, which has been demonstrated to favor signed artists with label affiliations over unsigned musicians. 

A 2020 UN report on global music streaming puts the situation quite bluntly: “This streaming-fueled success has not trickled down to performers, especially non-featured performers. The more global revenues surge, the harder it is for performers to understand why the imbalance is fair- because it is not.”

Working musicians find themselves in one of the most precarious positions in society. They usually have to juggle multiple jobs with unstable hours, often balancing incomes from teaching, gigging, touring and streaming. The pandemic eviscerated the live music industry almost overnight, leaving streaming services as one of the only places music was being heard at all. Even before the shutdowns the 2019 Creative Independent Music Industry Investigation Report demonstrated that the music industry was becoming inaccessible to the working class. At the time they stated, “There is an urgent need for digital streaming services to reform their models.”  The sudden disappearance of other forms of work for musicians meant that this already unsustainable model was all they had to survive on. Unable to make a living, musicians are quitting. Capitalism is killing music.

Music streaming is an example of capitalism at its most parasitic. Musicians not only create all of the value that services leech from, but they even pay to be on services. Rates of pay are veiled behind bureaucratic walls, and musicians are atomized from each other. But artists have begun to fight back. At the beginning of the pandemic the Union of Musician and Allied Workers (UMAW) started a “Justice at Spotify” campaign with demands including revenue shares of 1 cent per stream, making closed door contracts public, and the adoption of a user-centric payment model. 

Cut out the parasites!

Ek has responded to the storm of criticism by telling musicians, “You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough”.  In other words: work twice as hard if you want to get paid. He went on to complain, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single artist saying ‘I’m happy with all the money I’m getting from streaming.’” It seems Ek is not content with just leeching off the work of musicians, he would also like them to play the world’s smallest violin!

The outrage at the level of exploitation of musicians has only been underscored by the news of Ek’s defence-tech investments. There have been calls for boycotts of Spotify in favor of sites like Bandcamp and Resonate. A variety of solutions have been put forward, many of which call on individuals to change their consumer habits. One such article stated: “We never seem to consider the culpability or the role of the listener. Is it inevitable that we’ll default to the easiest and cheapest option?” 

Musicians need to be paid fairly for their work, but the question of who pays is crucial. Asking individuals to practice conscious consumerism doesn’t explain why artists aren’t paid in the first place. The wealth already exists; it was created by the musicians themselves, yet it sits in the bank accounts of Ek and others. Placing the onus on individuals to solve this crisis fails to address the root issue: the private ownership of streaming services in general. Instead of boycotts or artists removing their work from these public platforms, we need to cut out the CEOs. Streaming services should be nationalized, with all workers who contributed to a project receiving fair pay. Music should serve society, not the capitalists.

Streaming services are an incredible technology that deserves to be used for the benefit of art, not to its detriment. This can only happen if working musicians are paid the value that they create, and have a say in what is done with their art. Music has a greater social importance than being a means for capital accumulation; it is a fundamental part of our social and personal lives. It should be a force that connects us, but capitalism transforms all human connections into economic transactions. Marxists believe that culture should not be the monopoly of the propertied classes. This can only become a reality in a socialist society in which all workers can participate in culture. We fight to liberate culture from the exploitative system of private ownership, in order to benefit art itself and the artists who create it.

Cut out the parasites! Nationalize major streaming services. For democratic control of streaming services!

Fair pay for all performers on a project!

No more closed-door contracts! Open the books!