Spotify and the fallacy of piracy

I have to admit, on the occasions I listen to a full album on Spotify without having to pay for it, I wonder why it’s allowed to exist. It’s brilliant and I love it – vast amounts of music available for nothing – zero money, zero effort! There is a great infographic showing how many album sales (through various means) or track streams an artist would require per month to maintain an income comparable to the US minimum wage at the time. It’s quite good, and I’ve seen lots of people invoke it (and the numbers it represents) in a “Spotify is Evil and Must be Stopped” kind of argument.

I’d like to turn it around a little, because I’d like to think that it’s not Spotify that’s evil as such. It’s us. Or, more accurately perhaps, you.

*ducks flames*

If you look at the most prolific music pirates, you will most likely be looking at people who actually put more money into the music industry (or at least directly to the artists themselves) than most. This finding is reported here by the Independent, and based on the people I know it makes perfect sense.

I know someone who downloads LOTS of music illegally. Loads of the stuff. This is how he finds new artists that he likes, then seeks them out, buys the music he’s already enjoyed, goes to their gigs, and buys t-shirts and other merchandise directly from them. How does this harm the music industry? It doesn’t – it supports it, very very well.

Lets then consider how I use Spotify – as we’ve established, Spotify pays the artists a tiny fee for every track that is streamed and nobody is going to make a living like that. There are two ways I use Spotify. The first one is convenience. Lets imagine I’m sat upstairs on my computer and fancy listening to some Sleater-Kinney. I could go downstairs, find the CD, bring it back up and put it in the computer – or I could just ask Spotify. If it was something I’d already digitised, I could try to remember which of our computers it was on, locate it on the network, and play it. Or, again, I could just ask Spotify. In this scenario, an artist whose entire catalogue I have previously purchased, whose gigs I have attended and whose t-shirts I wear, gets some pocket money on top of what I’ve already spent. Win win.

The other way I use Spotify is for collaborative sharing – viewing and contributing to people’s public playlists, for example. This is an opportunity for people to share their musical tastes, legally, and without any expenditure. I have discovered some great new music like this – for example I love Kieron Gillen’s annual music roundup, and often find some gem to investigate further. This is likely to result in a music purchase at some point that would otherwise have never occurred – so in this case the artist gets their tuppence ha’penny for the first few listens on the playlist, and the potential bigger purchase of the album later on. Win win, again.

I’m struggling to demonise Spotify here. Sometimes several months may elapse between me discovering a band I like “for free” and actually making a purchase, but if I actually genuinely like it, that purchase will be made. Eventually. If you want to argue that not everyone can do that because they don’t have the “spare” cash – well, they wouldn’t have been buying any albums or going to gigs anyway, would they? At least the artist gets a fraction of a penny from them instead of the naff all they’d otherwise get.

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