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Unfree Agents

Spotify pushes an Uber-like model for independent artists

Last month, Fast Company published an uncharacteristically long interview with Spotify’s thirty-five-year-old CEO Daniel Ek—he rarely does this sort of press. In the interview, Ek reflects on the year he attempted to tour with a band (“I realized that music wasn’t the thing I wanted to do six hours every day”), what the Spotify headquarters calls its “bets” board (listing new projects that get 40 to 50 percent of company resources), his initial feelings about Discover Weekly (he “never really saw the beauty of it” and thought it would be a “disaster”), and, well, many other things.

Inevitably, the interviewer pressed Ek on the criticisms that consumer tech companies face today. In response, Ek aggressively distanced Spotify from the culture of Silicon Valley, and, in particular, Uber: “The end vision of Spotify is to get a million artists to make a living off of their art,” Ek said, but “the end vision of Uber” is to have zero drivers. “Be my partner until I don’t need you anymore,” he concluded, referring to Uber’s dream of deploying self-driving cars. “That’s a very challenging business proposition.”

At least one Spotify employee has referred to the company’s aspirations with the Uberish term “self-driving music.”

It was a peculiar comment coming from Ek, especially considering the way Spotify forces independent musicians to work more like Uber drivers—beholden to the whim of a platform they can’t control, one whose “innovations” have undercut an industry that once provided some semblance of an organic support system. What’s more, at least one Spotify employee has referred to the company’s aspirations with the Uberish term “self-driving music,” language which points to a strategy that would see music creation and discovery become more automated and data-driven, and, as much as possible, human-free.

On the discovery end, playlists have recently moved in a more machine-run direction, as Spotify has started testing a select slate of formerly human-curated playlists with algorithmic suggestions: Beast Mode, Chill Hits, Dance Party, and Metal Ballads “among other genre, decade or mood playlists,” reported Billboard.

And Spotify recently signaled its plan to license music directly from independent artists, which would make the streaming leviathan resemble, of all things, a monstrously huge record label—though they swear they aren’t, much in the same manner that Uber claims it isn’t an employer. By licensing this music directly, Spotify will almost certainly contribute to the disappearance of truly independent record labels. Reading about these prospective deals, it’s hard not to imagine a thoroughly gamified future for music: an industry filled with “independent contractors” who make music alone at home, service it to Spotify—after which they will dutifully refresh their “Spotify for Artists” dashboards, check the “Stats” tab, and hope for playlist placements.

So despite Ek’s protests, Spotify is becoming more like Uber, a company that disingenuously bills itself as a mere service for connecting drivers and customers, one used by everyday people seeking a flexible side job. Yet it’s common knowledge that Uber drivers are not considered employees in most countries, not offered benefits or traditional protections—they’re “independent contractors.” Simply by offering lower prices than city taxis, Uber has given many longtime drivers no choice but to embrace its platform. There is little “independence,” in other words, for workers whose industry is dominated by an enormous platform. And often, the “product” is being sold to workers as much as it’s being sold to users.

The notion that artists who sign with Spotify would likewise be “independent” is similarly dubious. In fact, the opposite is true: it would bind these artists more tightly to the industry’s new center of power. As artists grow more dependent on streaming services—for distribution, marketing, and revenue—the services themselves benefit from the wholesale “disruption” of the prevailing model for music distribution. This might be especially true for independent artists and labels, who are largely struggling with changes in the industry. Direct contracts with Spotify would almost certainly exacerbate these struggles and expedite the broader disappearance of independent music as we understand it.

Potential Spotify investors must be thrilled. Last month, a study released by Citigroup showed that in 2017, only approximately 12 percent of the music industry’s revenue went to artists, which speaks to the financial precariousness faced by many musicians. Yet perversely the same study offered, as a solution, the “organic” vertical integration provided by companies like Spotify morphing into record labels. In a word, the study diagnosed an illness and recommended death as a cure.

Needless to say, signing directly to Spotify is not a preferable solution for many independent artists. It’s more likely that the onrush of contracts would serve Spotify’s bottom line, giving it the leverage to lower the costs they pay for licensing music. This is how platform economy strategies often look: invest in branding to engender a sense of “trust” with industry actors; hire newly enthusiastic if powerless individuals to work independently with increased personal risk; make use of this newfound ubiquity and wage-giving power to ruthlessly minimize costs.

We should have seen it coming: Spotify’s aspirations toward both “self-driving” music and independent contracts are perfectly in line with the company’s other recent schemes. Earlier this year, Spotify released a series of videos titled “The Game Plan,” which served to teach independent artists how to navigate the platform. One of these videos, “How to Read Your Data,” features an artist duo that previously considered themselves an indie-pop band, but through the magic of Spotify data has come to realize they are more often classified as an electronic group, considering that they fall into playlist categories like “Chill Pop” or “Chill Vibes.” “Maybe there’s a future for us in doing some DJ sets on the side rather than just playing full live musician sets with a live band,” one member wonders. Here is a glimpse of the future: Spotify dictates the creative process to an artist, and the line between “independent” or platform-employed grows ever murkier.   

When Spotify claims its company mission is “to have more than a million artists to be able to live off of their art,” what they mean, by “making a living,” is that these artists must bend to Spotify’s will. In the domain of Spotify, “making a living” demands that an artist—often one of personal means—acquiesce to what streams well, to what feeds the algorithms, thereby sacrificing their creativity to the tastes of the playlists (think chill music, “viral artists,” sticky pop songs, mood and activity specific music, etc.).

It’s true that this strange, symbiotic relation between music and the Gig Economy™ stems from the fact that music, historically, has always relied on an actual gig economy: a show here, some session work there, maybe a gig touring with a friend’s band. Music culture’s reliance on one-off gigs of course means that stability is rarely part of the equation for artists (no health insurance or “time off”). Still, the upside is legitimate independence and control—the very things corporations, and especially the platform economy, love to exploit.

Critics and journalists have pointed this out about the so-called “sharing economy” for years—it’s only now reaching independent musicians en masse. In a 2015 interview, author and filmmaker Astra Taylor, while discussing the precariousness of the digital economy, put it well: “If you read the business press, what they’ll say is, ‘Oh, everyone is kind of an artist now. Everyone is kind of a creative, free-agent entrepreneurial subject.’”

According to Taylor, the position of the artist was once an exception, but today it’s dangled as an aspirational model for all workers. “If you do have a job, you’re not just supposed to work eight hours/day or forty hours/week, you’re supposed to work around the clock because you love it so much, you love it like you’re an artist,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s especially incumbent upon artists that we deeply analyze and be very critical of the current paradigm because the creative ethos is being used to bolster this very exploitative new form of capitalism.”

Following this artist-aligned logic, Uber has, over the past year, become more and more obsessed with music culture. They particularly enjoy parading musicians who drive to support their art-making careers—a feel-good set of narratives that distract from sadder stories about longtime taxi drivers whose livelihoods are threatened by its platform. In January, when Uber became “the official rideshare partner” of the Grammy awards, the company released a string of videos that featured Grammy nominees who “surprised” aspiring musician-drivers by catching rides in their cars and sharing advice with them. Uber’s tagline: “Supporting every artist’s road.” Later, in the spring, Uber presented its own American Idol-style country music contest, “The Music Movers,” which curiously celebrated “what drives the musicians in the Uber community.”

Spotify has absorbed and rebranded the platform economy’s diabolical approach to labor.

It’s a twisted irony: Uber relies on the independence and creativity of music culture to brand away concerns about how it treats its drivers; meanwhile, Spotify, more and more the unavoidable bogeyman of music culture, adopts a model of Uber-exploitation for a growing number of (no longer) “independent contractors.”

When Spotify pursues Uber’s tactics—convincing independent artists to become “free agents” by working directly with streaming services—our alarm bells should sound. It means that streaming services have absorbed and rebranded the platform economy’s diabolical approach to labor, selling it back to financially compromised artist-workers whose lack of power companies like Uber were first designed to exploit.