Critic's Notebook

Taylor Swift and Daniel Ek debate Spotify: What's a fan to do?

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
Fair-market pay for music. Widely and inexpensively available music. Are the two really so far apart?

Taylor Swift and Daniel Ek are more alike than they might like to admit, and their arguing of late is starting to get confusing.

Sure, one is a Pennsylvania-born pop star who just sold a cool 1.3 million copies of her new album, "1989," in the first week, the other a Sweden-born creator of the popular, and divisive, Spotify music streaming service.

She's got a way with lyric and melody that touches the masses. He's accomplished something astonishing in Spotify and the so-called universal jukebox. She's an artist and one of the few in a position to negotiate for what she and her partners consider fair market value for her work. He's a businessman who says he desires fair compensation for artists, seems sincere about it and can't understand why detractors don't see the numbers or the future.

Their ascents are strikingly similar. Both are leaders in their fields and sought success early. Ek, 31, formed his first business at 14 and launched Spotify at 23. At 14, Swift, now 23, moved to Nashville to embark on a career in music.

Now multimillionaires and in the public eye, Ek and Swift are involved in a high-profile conversation about the availability of her music on his service and are using fans' actions and expectations to further their points. We're stuck in the middle watching Mommy and Daddy fight. And with the news Wednesday that YouTube will begin offering its own competing music service, YouTube Music Key, for the same price, the stakes couldn't be higher. In addition to a similar volume of streaming music, YouTube will also offer commercial-free access to its library of music videos as well as to parent company Google's Google Play service.

Two weeks ago, as Swift was debuting "1989," her record label, Big Machine, pulled her back catalog from Spotify and declined to release the new one to that or any other such service, including Rdio, Rhapsody and Beats Music. Arguing that free-tiered services diminished the value of Swift's and others' art and, worse, insulted so-called superfans, Big Machine opted to release the album only as MP3 download and compact disc; it now limits access to her catalog to premium streaming subscribers.

A million-plus copies later, the arguments have continued, and a central question remains: What's the ethical path for a music fan to take?

"We never wanted to embarrass a fan," Scott Borchetta, Swift's manager and Big Machine founder, said as a justification last week with Nikki Sixx on Sixx's podcast. "If this fan went and purchased the record, CD, iTunes, wherever, and then their friends go, 'Why did you pay for it? It's free on Spotify.' We're being completely disrespectful to that superfan who wants to invest."

It's a nimble heartstring to tug, the one that holds Swift's legion of adoring fans as the victims in Ek's equation. But even the most naive of Taylor's army likely understands that Borchetta is gunning to earn a lot more than respect for his client.

Swift hinted at the pending banishment in July, when she published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, writing in part, "Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently." Note how she conflated two illegal activities with the legal streaming option. This is an artist who understands the power of language.

Her stance also echoes similar issues between creators and distributors on other fronts. Amazon is battling book publishers over pricing, newspapers are fighting Google over content usage, and cable networks and Internet providers are trying to stake claims in an untethered TV marketplace.

"Music is art, and art is important and rare," Swift continued. "Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It's my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album's price point is."

On the surface, it's a fair request, although history has shown that for-profit, publicly traded record labels will seek to maximize profit at the expense of fans and nonplatinum artists whenever possible, especially when jobs, bottom lines and first-week sales numbers are involved.

In a response that Spotify published on its blog after Big Machine's action, the company defended its model as it too invoked fans and the plight of the artist. "We believe fans should be able to listen to music wherever and whenever they want, and that artists have an absolute right to be paid for their work and protected from piracy. That's why we pay nearly 70 percent of our revenue back to the music community," it read.

Ek later added in his own blog post that Spotify has earned billions for artists, money that would not have existed in a digital marketplace overrun with illegal file sharing.

"Piracy doesn't pay artists a penny — nothing, zilch, zero," wrote Ek. "Spotify has paid more than two billion dollars to labels, publishers and collecting societies for distribution to songwriters and recording artists." He added that his company's royalty payments have been for "listening that would have happened with zero or little compensation to artists and songwriters through piracy or practically equivalent services if there was no Spotify." In Swift's case, said Ek, she would have already earned a $6-million check from his company had she done it the Spotify way.

But that's a tough figure to parse. In a 2013 blog post, the company estimated that the average "per stream" payout to rights holders was between $0.006 and $0.0084. It added that average per-stream payout generated by premium subscribers was "considerably higher," though it didn't offer specifics.

As valid arguments for and against the new system fly, here we are, fans stuck in the crossfire. Spotify needs our dollars and allegiance to make its business model work; Swift makes music that many of us want to possess, and she wants to optimize that desire through the honest, fairly priced — and ubiquitous — distribution of her music.

Many perhaps feel as I do: In love with the sheer wonder of the so-called universal jukebox and willing to support its growth but also respectful of musical creativity and the geniuses, should-bes and never-rans hoping to earn a living from their art. I want as many of them to succeed as possible. (If only so I can continue to be a part of the system and critique their next album.)

As a consumer of music and as a journalist who's got a quick-react need for all-access, I've long been a cheerleader for streaming. It's been tempered with a huge dose of quiet guilt. The part of me that loves it is the same teen who yearned for anything I could get as a voracious listener far removed from cultural hubs. That fan still gobbles up music, so the promise of access to the world's collected catalog is too great a temptation to ignore. I'm starting to consider it a utility.

For the price of a pancake breakfast I can purchase a month's supply of commercial-free music, make mixes, share them with friends, broadcast them to the world. To have access to even 500 essential albums when I was first discovering music would have cost $4,500 — or, if you're like me, half that in blank tapes and the generosity of friends with big allowances — an impossible amount.

I believe that the $10-per-month fee that most services charge is too low a price, and despite what Ek would have you believe, that price diminishes the value of music and insults its creators. An expert song maker should be compensated just as an expert cabinetmaker is.

The numbers just don't add up. Compared to its closest video cognate, Netflix, what Spotify offers is too much of a bargain for its creators' good. At that price, either the artist, label or streaming service is bound to lose.

If Netflix made available nearly every film and TV show ever made, accessible on demand regardless of studio, era, nationality, language or genre, how much would you pay? A library, for example, including the combined filmographies of Chaplin, Spielberg, Hitchcock, Welles, Godard, Tarantino, Lynch, the Coen brothers, Soderbergh and everyone else? The oeuvres of Katharine Hepburn, Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Keener? Toss in full access to new series from HBO, AMC, Adult Swim, HGTV, ESPN and Bravo — all offered in high resolution wherever, whenever.

Minus the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Coldplay, Swift and a few noted others, that's what Spotify offers to consumers of music. Even at $29.99 a month such a service would be a bargain. But it's also not a price that your average kid can afford, and therein lies the rub.

So what's the superfan to do, and how do we behave in what Ek describes as "a new music economy that works for artists in a way the music industry never has before"?

If we're building something that favors artists and advocates compensation, why limit the ways artists can be paid through Spotify? One valid idea making the rounds is to allow for a virtual tip jar that allows me to toss in a buck that goes directly into an act's bank account. I once paid $15 for a download just because the artist explained in his pitch that he'd likely spend the money on a nice glass of Scotch. I loved the idea of buying the guy a snifter of Oban.

If I've listened to the new Run the Jewels record 50 times, I'd be fine with an alert suggesting that a gratuity might be in order. I'd also be happy to know when an act is fundraising for a new album or is starting an account to invest in a new modular synthesizer or replacing stolen gear. It may not be the cure, but such access not only offers the opportunity to be not just a fan but a benefactor and implicitly reinforces the idea that anyone brave enough to make a go of it in the music biz these days deserves an opportunity to shine.

Ek's right about one thing: A new music economy is being built. And Swift's concern for young artists bears repeating: "I hope they don't underestimate themselves or undervalue their art."

Fans want their musicians to succeed, just as they want unlimited access.

Twitter: @LilEdit

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