Monday, January 28, 2013

Get Off Their Cloud: Why I'm Canceling My Spotify Subscription

On an otherwise unremarkable May day—I remember that the weather was quite nice that afternoon, and that I decided against going home for lunch—someone broke into the home through the front door, and stole my computer. Gone also was my “passport” external hard drive, and the 60 GB music library it held. I had been accumulating the music in that library since I was fifteen.

Thankfully, I had about 80% of my music backed-up on another hard drive. And my turntable, speakers and records were untouched by the thief or thieves, who discarded a large kitchen knife a few feet from my bedroom.

That was a Monday. The next day, I bought vinyl copies of Beach House’s just-released Bloom and the Velvets’ VU. Those albums were a big part of my life in the next few weeks. But I was still left wondering: how do I get and listen to music without my computer?

I turned to my phone, buying a Spotify premium subscription for ten bucks a month. No ads, you can download stuff to your phone, stream nearly anything—it’s pretty cool. That’s how I’ve done 90% of my music listening for the past eight months. Most of my 2012 top ten list—and much besides it—passed through the “new music” playlist on my Spotify.

I think I first realized Spotify was a thing from Facebook, where I saw that Nathan was listening to Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With Youa lot. I guess I’d read about how popular Spotify is in Europe, and how it might be a “game changer” here. I was already using it at my job, where my “Box Sets To Barely Hear At Work” playlist got a lot of action.

And, yeah, the app and the whole service is pretty great. If you use it, you already know that. It’s getting pretty popular: at the school I go to, our IT guy sent out an irate message telling students to stop downloading Spotify on every computer.

But I’m quitting Spotify, paying for it at least. That’s my 2013 music-listening resolution, if you want to look at it like that. There’s a couple things about the service that aren’t worth $120 a year.

First, it’s a raw deal for musicians. Damon Krukowski, drummer for Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi (and legend in my musical universe), wrote about the kind of money he makes from the streaming services like Spotify and Pandora
My BMI royalty check arrived recently, reporting songwriting earnings from the first quarter of 2012, and I was glad to see that our music is being listened to via these services. Galaxie 500's "Tugboat", for example, was played 7,800 times on Pandora that quarter, for which its three songwriters were paid a collective total of 21 cents, or seven cents each. Spotify pays better: For the 5,960 times "Tugboat" was played there, Galaxie 500's songwriters went collectively into triple digits: $1.05 (35 cents each).
As someone who literally used Spotify to stream “Tugboat”, I was pretty taken aback. 35 cents per quarter is such a paltry sum. It’s barely enough for a cup of coffee, even if you save up a year's worth of payments and go to a cheap café.

We all know that the internet has made it really difficult for people to make a living playing music. When I spoke with the guy who runs 23 year-old indie Slumberland Records, he told me that only one of the 37 bands on his roster makes enough money to do music full time. And most of that income comes from touring.

What’s really obnoxious—beyond the people who insist everything should be free—is how Spotify pretends to be good for musicians. I haven’t heard their ads in a while—that a perk of paying $10 a month—but they frequently mention that Spotify supports musicians (I think the ad also mentions rights holders). That’s true, I guess, in a literal sense. But a hollow claim when you think about it in terms of Krukowski’s paycheck. I doubt that rappers are able to finance their Ciroc budgets with the level of royalties Spotify pays out.

The other reason I’m cancelling my subscription is that I don’t really trust Spotify. Nathan tweeted recently about how Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde suddenly disappeared from Spotify. Things like that are minor annoyances, but minor annoyances add up. It was not easy to listen to Led Zeppelin, who are not on Spotify, these last eight months. That was a major annoyance.

At a more macro level, I like actually having my music. Streaming is a bit like renting—you’re paying for something you get to use, but will never own. If Warner Music Group can’t agree with Spotify about royalty rates, then it can pull its catalog, whether you pay for the service or not. Anyone with a cable subscription knows that shit like that happens all the time. And then everyone who needs to listen to Neil Young is just shit out of luck until the lawyers can hammer it out.

There’s no reason to trust Spotify. It’s a well-designed service with a really impressive catalog, but if, down the line, they realize they can make more money by making the service worse on your end, they’ll do it. They’re a private company; they owe you nothing.

You cannot build a music library through Spotify because you do not own the music you stream through Spotify. If and when Spotify goes public, they will continue to owe you nothing, unless you are a shareholder.

So I’m discontinuing my Spotify subscription. I’m intrigued by the Amazon and Apple services that allow scan your music library and allow you to access it anywhere from your phone. It’s cheaper than Spotify (though costs are on top of actually buying music), but it seems a little invasive. We’ll see.

And I’m not going Cold Turkey on Spotify. Like Kurkowski, I’ll probably keep using it because “the access it gives me to music of all kinds is incredible.” He also points out that Spotify listeners would have to play “Tugboat” more than 680,000 times to give him the $9.99 needed to pay for a month of the premium service.

So, again, the service Spotify provides is good. But it’s not good enough, for musicians or listeners.


  1. Not that it's needed, but I could add to this list of complaints. Beyond the royalties it pays artists, the irritating ads, and the disappearing music, Spotify also does a bad job organizing albums and artists by name. Would it be too costly or time-consuming to hire someone whose job it is to relabel the dates on albums so they follow a chronological order? Finding certain artists sometimes is even worse. For instance, you can find UGK's discography split between "UGK" and "UGK (Underground Kingz)." If you listen to "1Train," it credits "A$AP Rocky Feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$" etc. as one artist. Spotify is particularly inconsistent when it comes to labeling collaboration albums.

    And as someone who does not pay for the service, I dread those chipper acoustic ads for Spotify's premium service. It is as if they chose the musical cue most likely to ruin your listening experience. It's a really insidious way of browbeating money out of annoyed customers.

    Like you, I continue to use the service, because I enjoy the playlist making features and the fact it does not freeze or crash as often as many music programs. Also, they just dropped Zappa's entire discography on Spotify--have to that has me stoked.

  2. It skips all the time on me. I just had to do my fourth reintall on Win 7. Weak. It is pretty amazing when it works though. Especially the mobile playlists I download onto my phone and travel with it. Any superior alternative? Nice blog, by the way. Andre 3000's year in guest verses article is what made me bookmark it. Thanks.