In 2020, the inequities between major-label artists and indie musicians became untenable – and it has led to a surging politicisation of the music industry. By Shaad D’Souza.

Music’s year of reckoning

Meg Remy (bottom centre) at a recording session for U.S. Girls’ latest album, Heavy Light.
Meg Remy (bottom centre) at a recording session for U.S. Girls’ latest album, Heavy Light.
Credit: Colin Medley

On the opening track of her seventh album, Heavy Light, the Canadian–American artist Meg Remy, who records under the name U.S. Girls, deftly highlights the struggles facing musicians the world over:

Numbers on a screen mean nothing to me
We’re on the same boat but different seats
And how could you ever believe
“It’s not personal, it’s business”?

Released earlier this year, that song, “4 American Dollars”, is an addictive, earthy disco track that is a neat summary of where most musicians are at as 2020 comes to a close. The increasing market dominance of music streaming platforms such as Spotify means that music is seemingly more democratised than ever, with the vast majority of musical history at any listener’s fingertips.

But it also reveals an increasing rift between major-label artists – pop stars such as Drake and Ariana Grande, and top-tier rock bands such as the Foo Fighters, Arcade Fire and The Killers – and independent artists such as U.S. Girls. A streaming-specific “pro rata” model of royalty payment that pays based on a percentage of total streams in a given time frame means that pop’s 1 per cent takes most of the streaming income. It’s an untenable inequality.

“4 American Dollars” puts the writing on the wall: as Spotify gloats about listenership stats and widespread usage, most working musicians are scraping to get by.

The past 12 months have seen a slow but large-scale awakening during which many listeners have become aware of how streaming on platforms such as Spotify exploits musicians. At the same time, indie musicians have become more vocal, no longer willing to capitulate to the market structure.

This shift may have happened so swiftly, and on such a broad scale, because companies such as Spotify unveiled nakedly exploitative new platform features while many full-time musicians lost most of their touring income through the pandemic.

The music industry has always known that streaming services are bad for independent musicians, but in 2020 Spotify seemed to declare all-out war on musicians. In March, the company announced it was trialling a feature that allowed musicians and labels to pay to promote their music with push notifications that announce new music, a feature that would obviously privilege the musicians with the ability to outlay the cash – that is, those already tied to rich labels.

A month later, the platform introduced a “tip jar” feature that allows users to donate extra money to their favourite artists. The Guardian called it a “slap in the face”. In July, Spotify’s chief executive, Daniel Ek, gave an inflammatory interview in which he suggested that artists needed to increase their output three- or fourfold in order to keep up with streaming demands, saying that releasing an album every three years – the traditional release model over the past few decades, and a tight time line even for the most prolific artists – was untenable in the “future landscape” of music. Finally, last month Spotify announced a system in which artists are promoted in its most popular playlists and algorithms in exchange for a diminished royalty rate. The uproar was swift and justified.

2020 has lit the fuse for 2021, a year of reckoning with how we consume music.

It’s clear that Spotify is a problem in need of a solution. What that solution might be is a point of contention among musicians and industry workers. The most popular I’ve seen kicking around seems also to be the least likely: a sizeable exodus of listeners from Spotify to more “artist-friendly” services such as the higher-rate-paying service Tidal or to Bandcamp, which allows fans to purchase music directly from artists and only takes a 10 per cent cut. This is a paid-download model, although Bandcamp has a promising app that allows streaming of purchased titles. Bandcamp has long been favoured by indie artists as equitable, and in the past few weeks there has been a lot of renewed hype about the platform’s potential.

Bandcamp is a vital, necessary service. I can’t help but feel, though, that these are temporary solutions that ignore two key problems: first, Spotify’s market dominance; and second, that a shift from unlimited streaming to paid downloads will be a hard pill for most casual listeners of music to swallow.

Telling a listener that they can fix income inequalities among musicians by moving to Bandcamp is, as one friend of mine said, equivalent to saying banning plastic straws can end climate change. For some genres, a Bandcamp model doesn’t suit the form: an artist such as U.S. Girls may release one $20 record every two years, but a rapper such as NBA Youngboy could release up to five streaming-only releases in half that time.

The most viable solution is the unionisation of musicians. The recently formed Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) is running a Justice at Spotify campaign, attempting to bargain with the company as a unified bloc. Comprising thousands of musicians and associated workers, the UMAW treats musicians as workers with collective bargaining power, a smart redefinition that feels more appropriate in a tech-dominated music market than traditional individualistic concepts of the artist.

The Justice at Spotify campaign makes specific and relatively simple demands: pay artists at least one cent per stream; adopt a user-centric – that is, not pro-rata – payment model; provide greater transparency around the advantages that major labels – all of which own chunks of Spotify – receive over independent artists; reveal and end any payola practices; credit all labour – that is, producers, writers, engineers and so on – in recordings; and end legal battles aimed at diminishing the rights of artists.

These demands seem to be the bare minimum, and are still receiving pushback from Spotify. Still, collective action appears to be the only way these problems will be solved. While individual users and artists can leave Spotify at will, only collective power will show how much massive tech companies rely on independent artists. I think it might also take the weight of at least one top-tier star to shift the dynamic, as when Taylor Swift removed her music from Apple Music when that streaming service launched free trials in 2015, until the company gave in and agreed to pay artists for any music streamed during those trials. Although tech companies have long histories of ignoring and exploiting workers, it’s my hope that the public nature of music-making will provide some leverage.

Until equity is achieved, though, listeners are left with a handful of imperfect stopgaps and, most likely, feelings of confusion, resentment and uncertainty. Was 2020 ever going to end any other way? 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 19, 2020 as "A year of reckoning".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription