Heaven or Hell? Spotify, Independent Artists and Sustainable Streaming

In case you didn’t already know before the pandemic, we are now truly living in the age of music streaming. If it isn’t Spotify, it’s Apple, Amazon, or YouTube.

It must seem absurd to the youngest generation that just a decade ago we were paying 99p per song!

Since its launch in 2008, Spotify has come to dominate the music streaming market, giving iTunes a run for its money, and redefining how music is distributed forevermore.

There were 345 million monthly active users of Spotify according to the company's Q4 2020 report,with 155 million of these users paying Spotify Premium subscribers. The Swedish streaming giant remains the favourite streaming platform among the general public, with Apple Music coming in at an increasingly close second.

However, Spotify isn’t without its problems and has attracted constant criticism from artists big and small over a number of issues that leave the little guy at a disadvantage (what a surprise...)

The main revenue generators for Spotify are through subscription fees and advertising of which artists make their money through stream share and are paid royalties , with Spotify of course taking their own cut.

As many of you might already have first hand experience of dealing with the platform, it’s fair to say that if you’re a small artist uploading your music to Spotify independently, you simply will not generate a significant amount of revenue on organic streams alone.

Another way to get your music noticed on Spotify is to find your way onto an official Spotify playlist. These playlists such as “Today’s Top Hits” or “RapCaviar” attract over 15,000,000 followers each.

Songs featured on these playlists generate masses of streams and can literally pull artists out of obscurity and into the limelight. Meanwhile, independent artists releasing their music on Spotify are just grasping to be part of the conversation; although the tools available on Spotify for Artists have seen some good press in recent times.

It’s been claimed as far back as 2015 that Spotify practices “Pay for Play”, in which labels pay the company to feature their artists on the platform’s biggest playlists.

This leaves independent artists at a huge disadvantage, effectively burying them under the dominant mainstream or for those with cash to burn. Spotify has become so crowded in fact that artists themselves are paying third party playlist networks to boost their content and attract listeners.

More recently Spotify has come under fire for its controversial new business model. This ‘Discovery mode’ allows labels and artists to prioritize tracks to listeners to a cut in what they earn in royalties. This model signals towards a new problem emerging within the industry in which Spotify has begun to shape the industry itself.

This begs the question, how unethical has streaming become? And how can we practice ethical streaming?

In fact there was a recent inquiry into exactly this; earlier this year MP’s met with directors at Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Music to examine the economic impact music streaming has on artists and record labels, interrogating the sustainability of streaming within the music industry as a whole. The full research report for the inquiry is expected to be released later this spring.


Many artists have previously argued against Spotify rules and their unfairness towards independent artists.

Famously, Taylor Swift removed all of her music from the service in 2014 citing “I will not dedicate my life’s work to an experiment”. Her music returned to Spotify in June 2017. Other artists such as Thom Yorke have similarly removed their music from service only for it to later make a sly return.

For those independent artists trying to fight the good fight, the Union of Musicians have launched a global Justice at Spotify campaign.

The campaign demands for Spotify to provide a better pay for artists after a surge of reliance on the platform following the outbreak of the pandemic. The organisation is promoting their Day of Action on March 15th which will involve demonstrations outside Spotify offices around the world.

While the listener can still decide to select, skip, and save what they listen to, Spotify generally guides the user through algorithmically generated playlists like Discover Weekly or Release Radar.

These tend to align with the artists the user already follows and doesn’t leave much room for newer emerging artists. This results in a widening gap between popular artists backed by a label that pays for promotion and the smaller independent artists just trying to get themselves out there and whilst these playlists won’t make or break an artist, it sure does help.

The pandemic has thrown us into an exclusively online world and resulted in a higher dependence on services like Spotify by smaller artists needing to generate income.

Instead, we are met with an increasing power imbalance in which the industry becomes even more algorithmic, influenced by how much money is thrown into it.

In an age where handing your demo out to strangers on the South Bank just won’t do anymore, it is clear for the independent artist that streaming needs to change.


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