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Spotify-Sanctioned Silencing: The Corporatization and Debasement of The Spirit of Music

As a particularly loud disparager of Apple Music, it has been disheartening to find myself less inclined to open Spotify and just listen to music, primarily because Spotify is not about just listening to music anymore. It seems to have transformed into a darker, greedier platform — one where making money off music seems to take precedence over enabling people to access it. 

You cannot skip songs more than six times an hour. You cannot replay a song. You cannot skip ahead to your favourite part of the song. You cannot tap back to a previous song. You cannot shuffle a playlist, or play it in order. You cannot view the lyrics of the song on the app. Users have also reported an increase in the frequency of the advertisements. By making the free experience an imposition on the consumer’s basic freedom to choose what they wish to consume, Spotify is essentially forcing all its customers to pay to listen to music.

It is frightening to imagine the consequences of such a decision and all the experiences that it takes away from: listening to your favourite road trip playlist, having impromptu karaoke night when everyone has morning classes, putting on music as you do homework and bopping to your favourite song as you do the laundry. Mundane interactions with music now come with a caveat — the knowledge that somewhere, someone who loves all the same music as you cannot listen to it while cleaning their room or doing the dishes. The knowledge that this sort of small joy has become something one has to pay for. When the very art that I use to escape the mundanities and irritants of everyday life becomes overrun with these same mundanities, the same things I want to escape, I feel uncomfortable even in my enjoyment. Even my simplest pleasures have become heavy with guilt, burdened with my own privilege which erects barriers not everyone can cross. 

Although alternative platforms to access music do exist, Spotify’s decision to limit free-tier features to such a horrible extent incites an enduring moral rage within me (and, I can only imagine, several other loyal Spotify users) because of what it represents — an apathy to the spirit of art. Spotify has done everything in its power to make art inaccessible, to erect a large and loathsome paywall between music and the enjoyers of it. What began as a universally accessible thing has turned into an exclusive privilege.  

Spotify was first launched in India in February 2019 with the goal of bringing “millions of artists and billions of fans together” and several special features targeted towards Indian consumers such as Multi-language music recommendations, Spotify Free with full control to play every song on demand and playlists made for India. What Spotify has morphed into now is the exact opposite of what it promised and provided India five years ago, underscoring a broader trend in the digital age of profit-driven decisions taking priority over the initial ethos of democratising access.

The immediate frustration one might feel at this realisation is only a symptom of a larger and more systemic problem of the commodification of music. Songs that emerged as a medium of honest expression to transcend the boundaries that divide all of us, as forms of protest and resistance against the greed of higher classes or the apathy and the corporate world, as ways to feel and enable others to feel less alone are passively being turned into conduits by the same divisive, apathetic and unfeeling corporations to earn more money.

This transformation of Spotify particularly highlights how capitalist consumerism turns ‘platforms’ into ‘corporations': from forums that prioritise the people and enable ‘music for everyone’ to insatiable overlords that change their definition of everyone when they have a large enough audience to exploit, thus reinforcing elitism and classism in the very thing which is supposed to be most truly for everyone.

Art’s essence is to enable a deeper and fuller experience of life for everyone. Placing monetary restrictions on who gets to experience the wonderful depths, the honest extremities of emotion, and the very lengths of collective human imagination speaks painfully honestly about who corporations believe gets to live most wholly. 

One would assume that the push for Spotify Premium at least comes with obvious benefits for artists, especially emerging artists who need help and whom Spotify has a reputation for neglecting. Surely the nuisance it has caused for the consumers must be met with benefit for the artists, right? Wrong. In a blog post titled ‘Modernizing Our Royalty System to Drive an Additional $1 Billion toward Emerging and Professional Artists’, Spotify explains its updated payment model while excluding emerging artists from the discussion. Perhaps the most controversial change is that a track must now get at least 1,000 streams over a year to start earning royalties from Spotify. Additionally, song streams will only be updated whenever a user listens for 30 seconds or longer. This action has been undertaken under the guise of deterring artificial streaming and redirecting revenue to artists. Still, the only beneficiaries of this policy are the bigwigs — the already established (and famous) artists, labels, and distributors who do not need these benefits. The payment rate after crossing the 1,000 streams threshold is also abysmally low in India. As of 2021, Spotify's royalty rate in the United States was $0.0038 per stream, while in India, it was $0.0021 per stream. It is glaringly obvious that both the threshold and the pay rate perpetuate an intentional system that specifically punishes those who need visibility, those trying to carve out a space and a career in the music industry, while elevating and celebrating the already popular.

The focus on a minimum number of streams shifts the focus from the purity of the process of the creation of music to its sellability. Spotify is fundamentally coercing artists into considering the factor of whether their songs will get streams during their creative process. This layer of commodification permeates the very essence of musical creation and leaves me deeply unsettled. Knowing that my new favourite song has been strategically made more marketable makes it feel less genuine, and tarnishes my adoration of it. I cannot listen to it, then, without thinking of the implications of my listening, without contributing to a system that I do not wish to take any part in. Listening to a song then becomes much more than that. It becomes my silent and wilful acceptance of a system that neglects the artists I listen to every morning, that exploits the songs that are in the background of my happiest memories. Although the purity of the artist’s craft has become polluted in a sense, my love for the song as a consumer also seems to have become contaminated. The value of music, then, in many ways has been tampered with and cheapened by corporate policy. 

The larger implications of Spotify’s decision are devastating. More than anything, Spotify has managed to assign a value to art. This is not merely another corporate policy change or a company trying to make more money — it is a morally bankrupt commodification of art. It is the removal of a smokescreen of combating artificial streaming and diverting revenue to reveal the true depth and callousness of corporate indifference.

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