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You Shouldn't Use Spotify

Why do creators earn so little without actions of consumers?

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Ruben Schade recently posted on his lovely micro-blog Rubenerd that you shouldn’t use Spotify. That was new to me. I’ve been a (paid) Spotify user since 2014, but I honestly never focused my critical thinking on why it is or is not a good service. I was intrigued by that short sentence, that was hastily mentioned without any context. So I started digging.

Part I: Streaming or Downloading

I’ve never been an audiophile, and I probably never will be, but I like the idea of spending money wisely. Back in the day, in late nineties and early 2000s, I loved browsing CD stores to buy the latest Wu-Tang shizzle (yeah, I was that kind of guy) and maybe spot other interesting hip-hop stuff I never heard of before. But let’s be completely honest here: who didn’t primarily Napster/Limewire/Newsgroup/whatever music? Guilty as charged - my ridiculously small amount of pocket money was reserved for Game Boy games. Fast forward ten years, five iterations of iPods and Creative Zen mp3 players, and we arrive at the wonderful world of streaming music instead of downloading it. Your disk will be grateful.

But your favorite music band won’t be. According to The Guardian and the Information is Beautiful infographic, a musician receives on average $0.001128 every time you listen to a track. In practice, things aren’t that simple, as Spotify (as almost every other streaming music provider) employs a pro rata payout model. The more sites and papers I read about this1, the more confused I become. As far as I understand it, it goes something like this: when all I listen to is 2Pac, and I pay €10/month, a portion of my own money still goes to 2Pac’s archenemy the Notorios B.I.G. - even though I did not actively “support” him.

Information is Beautiful goes even further by adding metadata, such as the number of plays needed to earn minimum wage, amount of free users for each streaming service, and so on. A musician needs to hit 336k plays before earning $1.472 (without taking any costs into account). When I try to compare this to a bought CD (I’m treading on thin ice here), say €15 for a CD with 15 tracks or €1 per track, of which the artist would get for instance 23% (See The Guardian figure). That means 6400 per track. But since you can’t buy a single one (usually, for a physical album), all that is needed to hit the minimum wage is 427 CD sales.

The difference is ridiculous. Simply staggering. I implore you to take a look at the aforementioned infographics. Yet, 23% for a physical CD sale is still disappointing. Luckily, Bandcamp only takes 15% and enables artists to publish their work without having to rely on a physical medium, or even a label company. That same CD, maybe now sold for only €10 because it’s digital, only needs 116 sales before reaching the threshold.

There are many blog posts entitled “why I don’t use Spotify”, and there are just as many statements from streaming companies claiming that comparing streaming with buying is like comparing apples with oranges. And they are probably both right. Still, it breaks my heart that I used to think that streaming Into Bass and Time from Ancient Astronauts would support the guys. It does, but barely. And my hard-earned money also ends up in the pockets of other artists.

Spotify used to stream pirated copies of music based on peer-to-peer networks. Only after a few years, they started “sobering up”, but still proudly claim that streaming music (on a free account) is the best alternative to illegally downloading music - and it seems to really slightly reduce piracy - but at a (steep) cost.

Part II: Consumers' Critical Thinking

Sometimes, I think that critical thinking every single second in your live on every single thing you do (or do not do) can be very, very tiresome. I have to think critically when at work, when buying groceries at the store, when buying a new laptop, when looking in the fridge and cooking, and apparently, also when putting on some music.

That got me thinking (urgh). Why does our society provide options that are decidedly unfair?2 If there was only Fair Trade chocolate in the supermarket, I couldn’t buy stuff that exploits African farmers. If there was only the option to buy from a fair streaming service, I wouldn’t need to fry my brains trying to trace my subscription money. Granted, it is very frustrating to see so many big companies who are not as transparent as for instance Bandcamp’s open policy.

The same is true for games. Do I buy them on Steam or Good Old Games? Should I wait for a Humble Bundle that also donates to charities? Do the developers offer a way to directly buy from them?

The same is true for books. Did you know that on average, the profit margin of a physical book is less than 10%? I earn about €3 for each sale, and my book costs €28.50. Of course, The Book Depository and Amazon put even more pressure on that retail price and even dare to undercut the market (which is illegal in Belgium). Fabian Sanglard’s Doom Game Engine Book fares off much worse: $1.59 of the $54 goes to him. Luckily, he told me that many people make great use of the Paypal donate button. The only fair publisher I know of is The Pragmatic Bookshelf, which state they pay out a royalty of 50%. “Far more than the industry standards”. Indeed.

A simplified breakdown of my book profit margin.

That got me thinking again (it’s starting to hurt). Why are many artists - that create original, creative material, in some way or another - mistreated in our society? David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs also talks about this. Service jobs (Hello consultants and lawyers) earn millions, while many artists struggle to survive. Granted, even though Taylor Swift pulled her songs from Spotify in 2014 (and re-uploaded them later…), I highly doubt she’s struggling - but many small artists are. I’d love to be a full-time writer, but it is hardly feasible when writing about obscure subjects in a language other than English.

Why I sometimes do use Spotify

Serendipity. Deliberate Discovery. Browsing, having stuff suggested, listening to a few songs, and jumping to Bandcamp to buy the album. That last part is crucial, and I hope by now you know why. Sometimes, it does pay off to be a critical thinker.

Thanks, Ruben.


  1. Hunter Gierhar’ts thesis on How the Spotify StreamingModel Affects the Modern American Musician was especially interesting. ↩︎

  2. The answer is capitalism. Everyone wants free stuff, and when they can’t, they want the cheapest option, thereby forgetting to pay the creator. ↩︎

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a level 36 Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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