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Spotify, Neil Young, and The Olds

Osita Nwanevu
9 min read
Spotify, Neil Young, and The Olds
Tore Sætre / Wikimedia

Hey all. Forgot to put out a reminder to send in questions for Mail Time this week. So let this be a reminder to send in questions for next month! Let’s hop to it.


There are two conversations to be had about the Spotify and Joe Rogan controversy. One of those conversations is merely an extension of the conversation we’ve been having over the last several years about speech and association. As I’ve said on other occasions, there’s no coherent understanding of personal freedom that doesn’t allow disassociation from entities doing things one disagrees with. And nothing actually obligates private entities to be as permissive and open as liberal states ⁠— especially not the whining of critics with fuzzy and inconsistent views on what speech is worthy of protection. There’s nothing else to be said here that hasn’t been said a thousand times before to no effect.  

The other, more interesting conversation to be had is about the streaming economy. As The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber recently wrote, Spotify signed Rogan in the first place because its executives believe podcasts will wind up being better for their bottom line than music. With Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulling their music from the service, that gamble’s now being played out in dramatic fashion:

Spotify picked the podcaster over the musician. On the Beach, “Old Man,” and most of the rest of Young’s gorgeous, warbling catalog as a lead artist is no longer available to Spotify’s 381 million users (though they can still gently blast Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young). The Joe Rogan Experience, a chat show about such subjects as health and society and mixed martial arts and aliens, remains available. In a statement, the company said that it wants “all the world’s music and audio content to be available to Spotify users,” asserted that it already removed “over 20,000 podcast episodes related to covid-19 since the start of the pandemic,” and expressed regrets about Young’s choice.
[...] The company’s deal with Rogan was part of a larger strategic shift whose implications listeners may not fully understand. Since launching in 2008, Spotify has transformed the music world by helping make on-demand streaming a reality for millions of listeners and rescuing the industry’s coffers from a years-long decline. But Spotify pays most of its revenues from songs back to labels and artists and has rarely turned a profit. In 2019, the company announced a new focus on “audio,” meaning recorded books, live chats, and the booming medium of podcasts. Spotify began paying out millions in exclusive deals with such creators as Rogan, the Obamas, Bill Simmons’s Ringer network, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

In short, the company that now runs the world of popular music is fundamentally ambivalent about its main product. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s read CEO Daniel Ek’s condescending defenses of Spotify’s exploitative payout model. These obviously aren’t people who care too deeply about music as art. And while it goes without saying that the industry has always been dominated by cynical, money-grubbing moguls, Ek and his company have had an unprecedented impact on the way we even conceptualize how music ought to be consumed.

I think one of the hopes many had for streaming and the mp3 economy before it was that advancing technology would be a boon for new artists ⁠— allowing musicians to share and promote their music widely and easily without predatory and conservative labels as intermediaries. But as the critic Ted Gioia wrote last week in a widely-discussed piece for The Atlantic, the biggest beneficiaries of the shifts in the music industry over the last 20 or so years have been the old and the deceased:

The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.

I have to admit I wasn’t terribly moved by this point when I first read it. One reason older music dominates newer music is that there’s simply a lot more of it available on these platforms ⁠— on Spotify, new artists are essentially competing with everything else ever released. But Gioia identifies the same pattern elsewhere in the industry too – the gold rush for the publishing catalogs of old musicians, interest in holographically resurrecting dead artists for tours, and so on.

This is where a lesser analyst of trends would start griping about the quality of contemporary music ⁠— arguing that consumers prefer the old stuff  just because it’s better than the new stuff.  That doesn’t really wash for me, even as someone who kind of believes pop had peaked by ‘85 or so ⁠— not only because I think there’s plenty of good under-the-radar music around, but also because I think Top 40’s genuinely getting better and more interesting, albeit not in ways that would necessarily grab the attention of someone who mostly listens to Dylan and Springsteen. Gioia, for his part, argues the olds are winning out because execs simply aren’t as interested in discovering and promoting new artists as they once were:

The people running the music industry have lost confidence in new music. They won’t admit it publicly—that would be like the priests of Jupiter and Apollo in ancient Rome admitting that their gods are dead. Even if they know it’s true, their job titles won’t allow such a humble and abject confession. Yet that is exactly what’s happening. The moguls have lost their faith in the redemptive and life-changing power of new music.

This is the same story playing out in the film industry, although there the studios have moved beyond remaking old material to adapting any bits of cultural detritus they think audiences might recognize. Variety on Mattel Films last week:

“We don’t want to make movies to sell more toys — that would be great, but it has to be about telling stories with authentic voices. Ones that feel original and sticky and exciting, and do their best to serve the individual brands,” [Mattel Executive Vice President Robbie] Brenner says. Operating entirely in the feature film space for the time being, Mattel has projects at studios and streamers all over Hollywood, with superstar talent attached.
Warner Bros. is in prep for “Barbie,” starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling and directed by Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with partner Noah Baumbach. They’re also at script stage on a Hot Wheels film. In July, Netflix will shoot the anticipated remount of “Masters of the Universe,” with Kyle Allen starring as the buff, blonde He-Man. Universal Pictures is at work on a horror franchise based on Magic 8 Ball with Blumhouse, and the studio is bringing Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots to life with Vin Diesel. At Paramount, Tom Hanks will embody his childhood favorite Major Matt Mason, the astronaut action figure, with “A Beautiful Mind” screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and MGM will put forth Polly Pocket with writer-director Lena Dunham and star Lily Collins.
Variety can exclusively report that the division has also set Dan Mazer, a co-writer of “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and a prolific feature comedy director, to develop a film based on the ’70s strongman Big Jim action figures. Jason Bateman’s Aggregate Films is also at work on movies based on the Mattel dolls Chatty Cathy and Betsy Wetsy.

We should understand that cultural stagnation is at least partially a policy problem. In a blog post on the music industry last fall, Cory Doctorow framed the dynamics of the streaming economy as a kind of compromise between Spotify and major labels fattened by consolidation ⁠— one that shuts out smaller players and new voices:

Spotify uses its industry dominance to extract heavy fees from the labels — creaming 30% of the total revenue generated by a typical track. Big Three monopolists with fat margins can absorb this. Indies? Not so much.
Spotify’s market-cap growth is in part due to the new ways it’s come up with to shake down the labels — a variety of tactics that all boil down to one thing: payola. Spotify will sell labels pop-up ads, placement in “radio” algorithms, and access to “Discovery mode.”
Like all forms of payola, Spotify’s rate card is a way for monopolists to edge out indies, buying their way into your earholes. I’m sure that the Big Three would rather keep the bribes they pay to Spotiify, but the consolation prize is pretty sweet.

Antitrust enforcement comes easily to mind as a solution, but as Doctorow points out, fights to break up or constrain big firms are long and arduous. He lists additional policy ideas worth considering:

Take reversion rights: Many copyright systems allow creators to take back their rights after a set period (35 years in the U.S.). This lets artists who signed bad deals — before they were proven successes — to resell their catalog or extract reparations by threatening to.
But reversion is really hard to do, and 35 years is way too long. Only a handful of creators — even those with valuable catalogs that could be renewed through reversion — ever manage it.
Congress (and other legislatures around the world, including Canada, where this is likely to come up in the new Parliament) could fix reversion: make it easier to do, and make it available after a shorter period — say, 14 years.
And what about those bad contracts? The “freedom to contract” has always been subject to limits, where some clauses are deemed unenforceable “as against public policy” or because they are “unconscionable.”
With the entertainment sector consolidated into just a couple of states, state legislatures could act to void the most abusive clauses — for example, clauses that allow labels to claw back royalties indefinitely to recoup (often inflated or fictitious) “expenses.”

Really, I think fixing what’s wrong with these industries is probably beyond the ken of this or any other individual administration, and none of these problems are particularly high on anyone’s policy priority list. So hopes that things might get better are going to rest largely on whether the consuming public’s preferences change ⁠— if people demand better and more novel art, the culture industries might shift to accommodate them. That’s where critics come in ⁠— ideally, critics from the left capable of illustrating how surface-level progressivism has come to obscure the inegalitarian stranglehold major firms now have over our modes of expression. Crucially, the complaint here isn’t just that things are getting boring ⁠— it’s that fewer and fewer people can make a living doing creative work and that even those who can have fewer and fewer ways of doing so.

As far as the actual content of art goes, I think I’ve already made my queasiness about sociopolitical didacticism clear in previous posts. There was a neat summation of what I think the left’s attitude ought to be in a recent Jacobin piece on “twee” and the indie pop scenes of 1980s Britain where the term originated [emphasis mine]:

“Twee” — originally a pejorative, now embraced by some — was first applied to the jangly guitar pop bands of the 1980s like Shop Assistants or Talulah Gosh, many of whom appeared on the New Musical Express’s (NME) C86 cassette compilation or were signed to Bristol-based indie label Sarah. These bands shared some of the nostalgic, almost cloying aesthetics associated with the modern conception of twee: bright colors, whimsical lyrics, a feminine, 1960s-inspired sense of style.
[...] Many of Sarah’s best-known artists also espoused left-wing views in their music. One group, the Orchids, penned an early anti–poll tax anthem in “Defy the Law.” Blueboy — one of the foremost queer acts of the era — wrote “Clearer” in opposition to Section 28 (“Let me be free this time / my time, it is getting clearer day by day”); Heavenly’s “Atta Girl” EP is a fierce rebuke to sexual abuse and victim blaming.
Even more important than the explicitly political lyrics penned by Sarah bands was an underlying philosophy that pop music, in its celebration of communal joy, could itself be political. “You’re never going to start a revolution by being dreary,” [Sarah cofounder Matt] Haynes tells us. For the DIY pop bands of the ’80s, the act of embracing excitement and beauty in the face of political despair was its own kind of rebellion.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

We already knew COVID boosters are effective, but there’s new data from the CDC on just how effective. From The New York Times’ David Leonhardt:

Once you get a booster, your risk of getting severely ill from Covid is tiny. It is quite small even if you are older or have health problems.
The average weekly chance that a boosted person died of Covid was about one in a million during October and November (the most recent available C.D.C. data). Since then, the chances have no doubt been higher, because of the Omicron surge. But they will probably be even lower in coming weeks, because the surge is receding and Omicron is milder than earlier versions of the virus. For now, one in a million per week seems like a reasonable estimate.
That risk is not zero, but it is not far from it. The chance that an average American will die in a car crash this week is significantly higher — about 2.4 per million. So is the average weekly death rate from influenza and pneumonia — about three per million.
With a booster shot, Covid resembles other respiratory illnesses that have been around for years.

Also, be sure to check out Neil Young's bizarre and delightfully skeuomorphic website when you get the chance.

A Song

A new feature! I've decided I'm going to end each of these posts with a track. This is "You Will Never Work In Television Again" by The Smile – a new project from Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead and Sons of Kemet's Tom Skinner.