Shaking off streaming services.

Don't Cry for Taylor Swift, Spotify

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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I cannot mourn Taylor Swift's removal of her back catalog from the Spotify streaming service: I сried my eyes out back in 2009, when Rammstein did the same. Well, no, in fact I didn't shed a tear: The only people who need all music to be on Spotify are the owners of Spotify. For the rest of us, and that includes musicians, a multiplicity of distribution models should do just fine.

Spotify's chief content officer, Ken Parks, once said this to Fast Company magazine:

The notion that you would want to withhold records from people who are paying 120 pounds or euros or dollars a year is just really mind-boggling. It's pretty hostile to punish your best customers and fans.

He was reacting to the tactics of acts such as the Black Keys, Adele and Coldplay, who would wait awhile before releasing their new albums on the streaming service. I'm sure Parks feels the same about AC/DC and the Beatles, whose music is absent from his service. It's corporate megalomania that drives Spotify executives to identify their own interests with those of all music fans.

I use the ad-supported version of Spotify and the paid version of its French-based competitor Deezer, which only has one Taylor Swift album, a collection, and lacks Rammstein, the Beatles and AC/DC. The minuscule amount of money I pay each month does not entitle me to all the music in the world. I will probably end up paying a subscription fee to YouTube, the music and video streaming service with the highest brand awareness in the world, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, but I won't expect it to cover all my music needs, either.

It's not just me. The IFPI's 2014 Digital Music Report points out that while in Sweden, where Spotify was created, 47 percent of Internet users subscribe to streaming services and only 7 percent download music, in the U.S. the shares aren't as far apart -- at 23 percent and 27 percent, respectively. In conservative Germany, where I live, we have 21 percent downloaders and 12 percent streamers.

If one accepts the theory that streaming services are the future just because they're the latest method of distributing music, that can only be a temporary situation. I am not so sure, though, having watched my friends throw away their turntables and then buy new ones a decade later as vinyl came back into fashion. Downloading music is still the safest way to keep from dying of boredom on a long road trip with uncertain mobile coverage or across borders. If you're serious about sound quality, though, you play vinyl records at home, and if you own an old car, you won't toss your CD collection.

Besides, music is a unique commodity in that its value goes beyond convenience. If I love Taylor Swift but can't get her tracks on Spotify, I'll be more than happy to buy them elsewhere. A lot of people do that: Her "1989" record has sold almost 1.3 million copies in its first week on the market, the most of any album since 2002. I recently paid $6 for a Thom Yorke album the Radiohead singer distributed through BitTorrent; more than 1 million people downloaded at least the free part of this offering in its first week.

Swift and Yorke are doing perfectly well without Spotify or other comparable services: They are naturally rebellious, assertive, adventurous and famous. Other artists, who are arguably as good or better, have decided otherwise.

Pink Floyd, which took a long time to come to Spotify, did so in a peculiar fashion last year: Fans had to stream the track "Wish You Were Here" 1 million times for the service to unlock the band's entire catalog. That took less than three days. Now, band members are happy with their revenue from the service. "A lot of people have been streaming our music, and importantly also a lot of people who weren't yet familiar with our music," drummer Nick Mason told the Wall Street Journal.

Late last year, Led Zeppelin put its catalog on Spotify. In 2012, Bob Dylan's music returned to the service after being taken off in 2009. These guys may be less popular than Taylor Swift today, but it's these dinosaurs the music industry is counting on to save Christmas. Evidently, they do not feel being on Spotify hurts their album sales.

The beauty of this situation is that nobody is wrong. No two artists' fan bases are the same, and no single distribution method is universally good for all the artists and all the fans. It's not a big hassle to get music from different places, and there's nothing wrong with artists looking for the most lucrative schemes for selling their work. Spotify executives should also mellow out and stop begging: that's no way to bring back someone you love. And then, perhaps, she's happier without you.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net