T-Swift and Spotify are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together (?)

This comes as a little late, but since I am the occasional fan of T-Swift (much to the chagrin of my girlfriend; haters gonna hate…) and an enormous fan of Spotify, I feel the need to comment. Recently, Taylor Swift has pulled all of her music off of Spotify. She has also taken what appears to be the moral high ground, claiming in a prior op-ed, as so many others have, that music should not be free, and that streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, Grooveshark, and the like are contributing to the music industry’s decline.
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Some have argued that Swift’s move is a shrewd monetary calculation. Billy Bragg argued that she is merely a part of a corporate stunt to exclusively join Google’s new streaming service, though the facts don’t seem to line up. Others say this benefits Apple, who is supposedly about to launch its own streaming service to rival Spotify. In any case, let’s take T-Swift at her word.
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In response, Spotify has published a website detailing how its royalty payments work, and how it contributes to the music industry by monetizing would-be pirates. Spotify has already paid about $2 billion in royalties to rights-holders.
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Roughly, Spotify pays artists a royalty of between $0.006 and $0.0084 per instance played. (In truth, it’s not a flat rate, but is adjusted for certain factors like popularity and country of origin.) Let’s do a few back-of-the-envelope calculations: Take the conservative estimate of Spotify paying artists 0.6 cents per play. Let’s further make the best-case assumption for the artist by saying that if you were to buy that same song on iTunes for $1.99, the artist gets that entire $1.99. Assuming people actually like the song and will replay it on Spotify, it would take about 332 plays to equal that revenue from one person. The upside for Spotify, however, is potentially limitless – assuming someone will play that song many many times over their lifetime, as opposed to the one-time fee for iTunes.
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When we relax the assumption that the artist gets all iTunes revenue, and bring it down to a realistic 10%, that one-time purchase gives the artist about $0.20 per person. This would only require about 33 plays to match. Granted this is a highly simplistic analysis which would obviously differ with bands and their popularity.
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Is this enough for the artist? Probably not. A lot of people have complained about Spotify’s paltry revenue to artists. I don’t know what the “optimal” price for a song is, much less how much is “fair.” But it is clear that Spotify’s model clearly adds value to the industry, and probably even to artists.
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What Spotify is actually hinting at, is that artists are not being hurt as much by streaming services or even by pirates, as they are by their own studios. Artists taking only 10% of the revenues of digital sales is a pretty raw deal. As I mentioned before, perhaps studios serve a legitimate economic function of lowering transactions costs of tapping into economies of scale for distribution. The problem is by concentrating all the money and power into a small handful of firms that control all of the distribution rights in our crazy copyright system is that they end up having the influence to negotiate their massive cut of the rents (and use the political system to do so when the market won’t oblige). This is precisely why Spotify (and iTunes for that matter) can only pay artists such a low royalty. Spotify pays 70% of its revenues to rights-holders, who are are often the studios, with artists getting whatever is left. Despite the value that Spotify seems to be bringing, the company allegedly has yet to make a profit because of these immensely high costs, and some say their model could be inherently unprofitable no matter how many subscribers they win.
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Which brings us back to Taylor Swift’s stand. Time correctly argues that even if Swift’s strategy works, it will not have a wider impact on the music industry. Only someone with who is already successful and has the level of clout equal to Swift’s could hope to make a living solely on digital sales. Streaming helps bands get discovered, and tap into the real money which comes from touring and merchandise. More fundamentally, however, is that streaming services like Spotify are actually incentivizing people to switch from openly pirating music. Forcing people to return to paying for downloads will encourage them to return to piracy, whereas the “freemium” option to stream music for no monetary cost (but suffer through ads) encourages legal discovery and consumption. The sheer convenience might even convince many consumers (as it did for me) to pay for the premium subscription, where Spotify actually earns revenues to pay to artists. Hell, even Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Metallica (!) are now on Spotify.

About Ryan Safner

I am Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University. I earned my Ph.D in economics at George Mason University. I research and write mostly about ideas and intellectual property, but also have interests in public goods, public choice, and economic development. See my professional website at ryansafner.com.
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