Medium.com is one of those sites where anyone who wants to can contribute an article—and sometimes it shows. Today in my inbox arrived this piece submitted by one “Sharky Laguna,” with the provocative headline “Streaming Music Is Ripping You Off” and exhorting users to “Fight back with this simple hack.” But is it and should we? Not so fast.
What has Laguna up in arms is that the royalties from services like Spotify are apportioned on the basis of most total streams—everyone’s subscription fees go into one big pool, which gets divided up by popularity. The artists with the highest number of plays get the lion’s share of the loot from everyone, even people who didn’t necessarily listen to them at all. Laguna posits the existence of fans who set up dummy accounts that they can use to play music by their favorite artists constantly, without even listening to it themselves, so their favorite artists get all the money.
Laguna thinks it would be more fair if royalties were apportioned on a streams per user basis, where each user’s subscription fee was divided proportionately among all the artists he or she specifically listened to. With that in mind, he proposes as a method of protest that everyone reading his article should proceed to do the exact same thing: set up their computers to stream music by their favorite independent artists constantly during the month of September with the volume turned off, so that most of the royalty money that month will go not to the major record labels but to independent artists. That will, he feels, Stick It To The Man and force the major labels to reconsider participation in the Big Pool method.
Where do I even begin?
First of all, the headline is ridiculously inaccurate. I subscribe to a streaming music service to pay them money and in return hear the music I want to hear. If those conditions are met, they’re not “ripping me off.”
By what calculus does Laguna think the majority of, or even many, listeners to streaming music even care about how royalties are apportioned in anything other than an academic, “Well, yes, it would be kind of nice if the creators got some money” sense? This is the same generation who made Napster the scourge of the RIAA. You think they cared about seeing to it the artists got paid when they were Napstering or Kazaaing or torrenting all their music? You think they’re paying for it now for any other reason than that it’s more convenient than torrenting everything they want?
(Yes, yes, some are. For example, I’m sure you, gentle reader, are a just and virtuous soul and would never dream of doing anything illegal. But again, you know how big Napster, Kazaa, BitTorrent, etc. were and are? Most of the people using them didn’t just up and die, you know.)
Second, I question his premise. Maybe some people cheat and try to game the system, but where’s his evidence that the problem is as widespread as he would have us believe? His stance on click fraud is all anecdotal and suppositional:
If the amount of click fraud activity on Google, Facebook, and Twitter is any indication (estimated to be over $6 billion a year), the problem could be far worse than any of the services will admit, or possibly even realize, and there’s no way for artists or fans to determine how much revenue has been stolen. It’s like someone sucking the oil out from under your property: you don’t even know it’s happening.
If. Could be. He is only able to dredge up one specific case of an artist gaming the system. I have a hard time believing that the problem is widespread enough to shave more than a few pennies, a dollar or two at most, from every artist’s paycheck altogether. Which could still add up to quite a bit of money for the few people engaging in it—there are lots and lots of artists. But it’s not hurting any one person’s ability to put food on the table.
Third, I have a hard time believing his tactic will be effective, even if it were remotely ethical. (Two wrongs. People who live in glass houses. Et cetera.) It’s basically just another face on the old “boycott” tactic, and those rarely ever do any good because you just can’t get a big enough proportion of the total number of people involved to take part in them to make a noticeable difference.
It’s just slacktivism. I have no doubt writing this screed made Mr. (or Ms.) Sharky Laguna feel better. And maybe participating in his cheerful little “stream indie artists” month will make people who do that feel better. But it won’t cause more than a minor bump in the royalties of any indie artists involved, and it won’t do anything to make the major labels or the streaming services change their tune. It’s just another “Buy Nothing Day” or “Buy No Gas Day.” (And last time I checked, people still bought plenty of Christmas presents and gasoline.)
If you think streaming service royalties should be apportioned a different way, write your Congress-critter. Write op-eds urging people to write their Congress-critters, or lobby other people who might have influence. (Record label or streaming service execs or shareholders?) But don’t try spray-painting graffiti all over their wall in the hope it’ll cause them to take notice and start a beautification campaign. That trick never works.