Three years ago, just as The Black Keys were in the midst of ascending to their current arena-rock status, the duo did something kind of groundbreaking for a mid-level major label band: they said “thanks but no thanks” to Spotify. It was a strategy their manager, Q Prime’s John Peets, told me they’d be monitoring through the record cycle for 2011’s El Camino. Based on the fact that the band’s No. 1 album Turn Blue, released this past May, does not appear on the streaming behemoth, I’m left to believe the strategy worked for them. Financial outcome aside, the Black Keys bellyached all over the place about Spotify’s unjustly low royalty rates, to the extent that I chuckle when I see what it says on their Spotify page: “The artist or their representatives have decided not to release this album on Spotify. We are working on it and hope they will change their mind soon.”
Something about that phrasing irritates me. The mere presence of the second sentence implies that dissenters will see the error of their ways and give in to Spotify one day. They all do. So when I see The Black Keys or even Thom Yorke standing their moral ground about Spotify’s flawed system while still making it work from a business perspective, I have to applaud them. For as popular as both acts are, they are not the one-percenters of the music industry. They still could stand to have more fans and, in turn, more money in their pockets. (This, of course, acknowledges that even big bands find new fans in this era by giving their music away for free.) But they believe in something, so that’s that… at least until Spotify’s version of the Beygency comes for them.
This is the current party line among the streaming service’s holdouts, repeated whenever a popular artist pulls music from Spotify. But it is not why Taylor Swift and her label, Big Machine, decided this week to pull her full catalog from Spotify. Billboard has inside sources claiming the decision has something to do with Big Machine’s pending sale. In figures to be announced Wednesday, Swift is expected to have had the best opening-week sales since 2002’s The Eminem Show, with 1.3 million copies of 1989 sold. I’m scared to imagine how Swift steps up her world-domination game with the release of her next album. She’s topped her first-week sales with each new release to date: 1.21 million for Red, just north of 1 million for Speak Now, 592,000 for Fearless, and 40,000 for Taylor Swift.
Rumors of Big Machine’s sale aside, the broad-stroke reason Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify is simple: because she can. The people who feel strongly enough about Swift’s music will follow her into the dark (i.e. iTunes), and selling to the deeply passionate is way more Swift’s thing (though at least a few of those 1.3 million must be casual lurkers). As Swift wrote this summer in her Wall Street Journal op-ed on the album as a monetized commodity, “I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow through the heart or have made them feel strong or allowed them to feel like they really aren’t alone in feeling so alone.”
Spotify itself cannot deny Taylor’s dominance. As the company noted in a blog post Monday, 16 million of the company’s 40 million subscribers — roughly a fourth of whom have paid subscriptions — have streamed one of Swift’s songs in the last month. “We hope she’ll change her mind and join us in building a new music economy that works for everyone,” the company continued. “We believe fans should be able to listen to music wherever and whenever they want, and that artists have an absolute right to be paid for their work and protected from piracy. That’s why we pay nearly 70% of our revenue back to the music community.” (I’m not even going to get into the specifics of how Spotify pays artists, but despite popular belief, it’s not per play. Rather, it has to do with an artist’s market share percentage in comparison to all other artists streaming on Spotify in any given month, multiplied by Spotify’s monthly revenue.)
I don’t know that Swift will ever return to Spotify (she’s still on Rdio FYI), though the Spotify’s passive-aggressive playlists suggest the company is not accepting “we are never, ever getting back together” as a final answer. Swift is part of the music industry’s one percent, and though she’s also a member of the millennial generation that’s embraced streaming, her elite positioning aligns her more with pre-Internet music icons like Garth Brooks and The Beatles in a financial sense. There’s a common strategy with regards to streaming among these level of acts: they simply eschew Spotify out the gate. They thrived before it, they will thrive after it. While Swift didn’t always have that luxury, she may be taking advantage of this kind of mindset now.
With 1989, Swift left her country fans in the dust and still managed to outsell her previous tactic of keeping one foot in both the pop and country worlds. And she did it by ignoring Spotify almost completely, with the exception of lead 1989 single “Shake It Off” (same with YouTube). The idea is that scarcity will drive initial sales, which seems to have worked for Swift. Why wouldn’t she replicate the model with her old albums?