Monday, December 5, 2022

Opinion: Race and Class at Spotify

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A nuanced conversation is thrown into the dumpster fire of cancellation.

On January 31, India Arie posted that she was leaving Spotify. Neil Young threw open a door that she was now forced to walk through. Musicians supplementing Rogan’s $100M salary with pitiful streaming rates is one thing. COVID misinformation added a layer of complexity. The addition of the infamous N-word mixtape, first surfaced by PatriotTakes on January 30, pushed Arie over the edge.

Three days later, Arie posted a video (now featuring the Rogan mixtape) to further explain why she’s pulling her music: the .003 cents per stream that musicians like her receive subsidize Rogan’s paycheck. She can’t have that.

I’ll return to the race issue in a few moments. Let’s begin by looking into Arie’s longstanding contention about artist pay—a conversation that skews toward class. In this case, the small class of musicians that thrive from streaming while the majority barely squeak by.

Pro Rata Blues

Is it true that artists only receive .003 cents per stream? Sort of. The dirty truth of streaming highlights an even more disturbing reality beneath the hood of Spotify’s payout scheme: the pro rata system.

Tl;dr: if you’re an uber popular artist on Spotify (think Drake or Adele), you’re going to make much more per share than Arie. How much? One 2018 study from Finland found that the top .4 percent of musicians received 9.9 percent of streaming money.

Here’s how it goes, with a bit of an anecdote. My project (alongside Duke Mushroom), EarthRise SoundSystem, has 54k+ monthly listeners. By contrast, Adele has 58M+ listeners. If Spotify only included the two of us on its platform, we account for .00009 percent of Adele’s listenership.

Image courtesy Fixelgraphy on Unsplash

Obviously, Adele deserves to make much more money. That’s not the issue; she’s way more popular. The problem is that she’s not only making more money for having more streams, she’s actually making more money per stream because Spotify weights revenue to appease top artists. (Really, the Big Three record labels.)

To make things worse, Spotify appears to purposefully pay artists to create generic music for its branded playlists to further weight the system—another cut adding to a triage system for artists like Arie, who rely on streaming revenue, especially as touring revenue has predominantly dried up.

While producing music is a fun side project for me, Duke is a lifelong musician and performer. As with Arie, he relies on streaming revenue. Our 6M+ streams on Spotify hasn’t resulted in much more than a few monthly car payments over a decade of hosting our music on the platform. We certainly did much better selling CDs.

CDs are predominantly a thing of the past; even the vinyl resurgence can’t offset the revenue loss that Arie and too many others have endured.

And it doesn’t end there.

Music as Data Mining

Here’s the thing: it gets worse.

In a 2019 review of the book, Spotify Takedown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music, I pointed out that Spotify is also a data collection service. Those personalized playlists on your feed aren’t a gift. They track and influence your emotional states.

And then Spotify sells the data.

The “intimate relation” personalized playlists evoke, the authors note, “is monetized at the very moment when users click play.” Music is only the layer you hear above “a cacophony of other data.” Using browser plugin Ghostery and network data capture tool Fiddler, the authors worked with a programmer to discover no less than 22 mostly advertising-related companies in that cacophony, tracking listening habits and providing real-time analytics. This data is packaged and resold.

Image courtesy David Pupaza on Unsplash

Remember, Spotify founders Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon had never worked in music before founding the company in 2006—they came from advertising. Spotify was effectively a competitor to Pirate Bay as an illegal file-sharing network when it launched.

It was never about the artists.

Incredibly, even though Ek is worth nearly $3B while Lorentzon is worth a half-billion more, Spotify has had trouble monetizing their service. While they rightfully take a lot of heat for poor artist pay, the lion’s share goes to the Big Three, as they control roughly 80 percent of the music market.

Pretty neat trick they pulled.

As of 2019, the Big Three pulled in $19M per day in streaming revenues. Spotify was finally projected to turn a profit in 2022, but then—Rogan. Not everyone agrees he’s the sole reason the stock has tanked in recent weeks, but he’s certainly a factor. And the recent drop in subscriptions is directly tied to him.

As every story is nuanced, however, let’s turn back to the most famous podcaster in the world.

The Long Game

Spotify was never going to deplatform Rogan. The company’s path to profit relies on him.

That’s because Spotify doesn’t own its content. The Big Three consumes a ton of streaming money. (How they pay their artists is another story.) Advertising, Ek and Lorentzon’s wheelhouse, never accounted for much on Spotify; subscriptions weren’t going to get them to profitability alone (although that number jumped 16 percent in the last quarter of 2021). Ultimately, Spotify needs to pull the same trick as Google and Meta: ol’ fashioned ads.

And Rogan is helping with that. His 11 million listeners aren’t all paid subscribers; many have to endure ads. While revenue from subscriptions increased by 22 percent in 2021, ad revenue jumped 40 percent. Sure, it’s still a much lower number overall, but it’s on the rise: ads used to comprise 10 percent of overall revenue; now it’s 15 percent. The biggest difference, however, is that Spotify owns the content. Ads provide them a path to profitability, especially when tethered to original productions.

Does this mean India Arie will receive more of that money if she decides to remain on the platform? Unlikely. It’s not like artists unionize inside the Big Three—and Spotify really only cares about maintaining relationships with record label conglomerates, not individual artists.

Where Are We, Really?

To recap, Joe Rogan got into hot water by platforming COVID misinformationists: Pierre Kory and Bret Weinstein during an “emergency episode” that catapulted ivermectin into mainstream consciousness in June 2021, and, more recently, Robert Malone and Peter McCullough. While never one to avoid controversy, this was the first time Rogan pushback started to generate traction. His half-hearted apology and Spotify’s mediocre response didn’t move the dial much, but it was something, and the medical community was continuing to fight.

Then the N-word mixtape dropped.

Despite a much more thorough apology from Rogan, and Spotify removing those episodes, the fight against him entered the culture war sphere. Intersecting narratives got jumbled. Now we’re left to wonder what actual progress will be made.

Let’s look at them in order.

COVID misinformation

This battle is lost. Spotify isn’t going to take down those episodes. The mixtape let Rogan cry “cancel culture,” and his rabid fanbase took up arms. Anti-vaxxers were never going to think of Spotify’s disclaimer as anything more than a performative gesture. At the very least, medical professionals were pushing back while musicians like Neil Young grabbed headlines. There was movement. Now, this conversation is over.

Racism

As mentioned, Rogan’s apology provides cover for his shameful past rhetoric. Not only cover, mind you: a number of critics accepted the apology, most notably India Arie, who turns out to have listened to his podcast in the past. As she told Don Lemon, she used to “tune out” his casual racism. Again and again, Arie reiterates that the mixtape was not the motivating reason for leaving Spotify; it was the final nail. I terms of the callout, she was mostly looking for “changed behavior,” which she believes has been accomplished.

Perhaps the best response to this debacle comes from Trevor Noah, who takes an even more nuanced look than Arie (though, in fairness, Arie keeps trying to draw attention back to artist pay). While I suggest watching it in full, Noah points out that the debate over whether or not Rogan is a racist can be waged until the end of time with no clear answer, as it’s a subjective take dependent on the individual. (Noah also makes a great distinction between the use of the N-word and the “Planet of the Apes” comments.)

John McWhorter wasn’t as ambiguous on the topic of racism. As he told Glenn Loury about the use of the N-word,

This business of not attending to the difference between using it and referring to it is childish… I mean, we can talk about Joe Rogan and COVID, but this won’t do.

The goal here isn’t to debate Rogan’s potential racism—yeahs and nays can be sourced from across the political and racial spectrum. I’m not interested in defending his insensitivity, to borrow Arie’s term. The issue is that the cultural conversation has turned to cancellation, and sadly that’s a war the Progressive Left (which has predominantly been waging this battle) is not equipped to win.

In November 2021, Pew Research Center published a study on the divide between and within political parties, condensing political typologies into nine categories:

  • Faith and Flag Conservatives
  • Committed Conservatives
  • Populist Right
  • Ambivalent Right
  • Stressed Sideliners
  • Outsider Left
  • Democratic Mainstays
  • Establishment Liberals
  • Progressive Left

Just over one-third of the general population (37 percent) hugs the middle, which I’ve bolded above. The further you move from the middle, the more extreme the views. While calls for Rogan’s deplatforming came from across the spectrum, they predominantly came from the Left, more specifically the Progressive Left.

As it turns out, 6 percent of the general public and 12 percent of Democrats identify as Progressive Left. Providing evidence for the horseshoe theory, this group is the most engaged political typology besides the Faith and Flag Conservatives—both groups that, as Jean-Pierre Faye’s theory states, lean hardest toward authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

The Progressive Left stands out when it comes to racial attitudes—an interesting phenomenon given that over two-thirds of this cohort are White adults. In fact, the Progressive Left is the least racially and ethnically diverse group out of all Democratic groups. Yet, as Pew shows, they hold the strongest racial beliefs:

Overall, Democrats generally are far more likely than Republicans to express a positive view of the Black Lives Matter movement. More than eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (85%) say they support the movement, compared with just 19% of Republicans and Republican leaners. However, three-quarters of Progressive Left say they strongly support the Black Lives Matter movement, substantially higher than the other Democratic-oriented typology groups.

One criticism from the Progressive Left during the Rogan incident (and elsewhere) is that White advocates determine themselves to “hold space” for people of color—an interesting declaration because, as noted, Rogan’s coalition is racially diverse (though it certainly skews male). For further evidence, scroll through the comments on his apology video.

While the Progressive Left tends to think “cancel culture doesn’t exist”—even as this typology drives the cancel narrative because members believe themselves to be the true gatekeepers of all that is righteous (just like Faith and Flag Conservatives)—Zaid Jilani points out that those hurt most by this attitude are the less privileged, which, unironically, are the people that the Progressive Left state they’re championing.

It’s ordinary workers and people who lack fame and fortune who suffer most from a culture that has become increasingly quick to judge and equally reluctant to forgive. Chappelle doesn’t have to worry about receiving weeks of negative media coverage because he has a global fanbase in the millions. He’ll always have a way to continue to make money and receive adoration. It’s very different if you’re a normal person who found yourself in the crosshairs of a social media mob that makes a snap judgment about you and demands your complete and total defenestration. 

Social media mobs create an insular echo chamber that sometimes results in real-world consequences—sometimes without investigating context before handing down a guilty verdict. Detractors are told to “read the room” in Leftist spaces, with a caveat being, in Rogan’s case at least, there are far larger and more diverse rooms where different messages are being shared.

The room the cancel mob sits in can’t compete with an endorsement like this one from the UFC Middleweight Champion, Israel Adesanya.

This really isn’t about whose room is larger, but about two threads of a fight being lost because narratives can’t be kept straight. Why does the Progressive Left find any discussion of Rogan besides deplatforming impossible while Arie accepts his apology and steers the conversation back to fair pay?

Well, part of the answer might lie in the fact that she’s actually listened to Rogan and came to conclusions on her own. She considers nuance a necessity, and social media rarely allows for nuance. Answering the last question posed would require a lot of nuance, which is beyond the scope of this article. In fact, the question itself sums up enough to move on.

Just like the entire conversation has moved from COVID misinformation to fair pay to racism to cancellation, we can close by again looking at Arie’s original point.

Fair Pay for Artists

The music industry, which, in its full force, is not quite a century old, has never been fair to artists. Vinyl records, the first media to break through to a mainstream audience (and make recorded music possible), are rooted in jazz, gospel, and classical music—two of which are Black genres that were mercilessly exploited from day one.

Every new form of music media has followed a similar trajectory: reward the elite on the backs of everyone else.

This isn’t a pass for Spotify or any other streaming service. In fact, the knee-jerk reaction to the Spotify situation is indicative of the general lack of foresight. You’re going to cancel your Spotify subscription and, what? Support Amazon? Because their CEO certainly needs the money. Apple Music? Amazing track record on human rights. Oh, you’re going to Tidal—which is majority-owned by Block, Inc.

Block CEO and founder, Jack Dorsey, is worth more than Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon combined.

To be fair, these streaming services pay better than Spotify, so it’s a good move if the argument is purely about supporting musicians. But let’s not cheerlead the pockets that are ultimately filled by a Spotify boycott, nor claim righteousness over your decision. Just make it about the musician.

Better yet, buy music through Bandcamp or purchase vinyl albums. The latter is cost-prohibitive to many of us, though if you really care about a musician, it’s one way to help.

Sadly, a lot of people wont’t make it that far. Such a move requires the nuance that India Arie speaks of—the ability to tune out when needed and see the bigger picture. What began as a discussion of COVID misinformation and then turned into a conversation about fair pay for artists is now lost in the dumpster fire of cancellation.

Good luck salvaging any meaning from there.


This article originally appears on Derek Beres’ Substack.

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