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Swift vs. Spotify and the Future of the Struggling Artist

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Taylor Swift recently made waves when her record label pulled her entire catalog off Spotify, a popular music streaming service. Fans and critics responded in turn, banging their chests and wailing in solidarity, meming and moaning across the Twitterverse about the plight of the Struggling Artist and the imperialism of mean old Master Spotify.

Yet as an avid and thoroughly satisfied Spotify user, I couldn’t help but think of the wide variety of artists sprinkled across my playlists, a diverse mix of superstars, one-hit-wonders, niche fixtures, and independent nobodies. With such reach and depth, had Spotify really duped and enslaved them all, leaving them brainwashed and helpless lest they rise to the courage, stature, and enlightened futurism of Ms. Swift?

Or could it be that some artists actually benefit from such platforms?

I’ve written elsewhere about the transformative effects of economic freedom on the arts — how unleashing opportunity, innovation, and prosperity has yielded unprecedented amounts of time, training, and resources, all of which can be used to create more art, and do so independently. For musicians, the cost of equipment continues to go down, even as quality goes up, and as artists continue to grab hold of these resources, companies like Spotify are swooping in to service the next step.

Much like Kickstarter and iTunes, Spotify continues to experiment with new ways of empowering artists, helping folks bypass record labels altogether (“the banks,” “the marketing machine,” “the Man”) and connect them more closely with audiences. Countless artists have jumped in. And yes, countless others have opted out, particularly the ones with cash, fans, and sway.

Indeed, what’s notable about Swift’s departure is that it’s somewhat of a case study in Top 40 arm-wrestling. I can easily believe that Spotify is not the best option for Enterprise Swift, but does that make this ground zero for the creative future of the music industry? Is this the supreme symbolic battle for the aforementioned Struggling Artist?

Over at Values and Capitalism, Wesley Gant dives deeper on this very point, pointing out the irony that swims throughout the pro-Swift solidarity. Quoting Tom Barnes, Gant notes that, far from illuminating Spotify’s abuses, Swift’s move offers “proof that the old model is unfeasible for anyone but music’s 1%.”

“Spotify isn’t for the well-established artists,” Gant writes. “It’s for up-and-coming talent that is begging for exposure, hoping that if just a small piece of the massive Spotify audience catches onto their music they can fill larger venues, sell more merchandise, and build a large enough following to land bigger deals.”

Spotify has surely found its believers, even among the well-established, but of course it won’t work for everyone. As with any transaction or partnership, artists and labels ought to assess the risks, costs, and benefits and make a decision that best fits their goals and interests — artistic, vocational, financial, and otherwise.

Which is why the problem in all this really has nothing to do with Swift’s decision, but with the sentiment that comes along with it, presuming that good artists and good art will somehow find their way to the surface if only we’d stick to the same static prices and stale mechanisms of yore. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a price tag of $9.99 or a track list that hugs the number 10, but there’s nothing inherently right about it either.

Spotify is not some savior of a solution, and indeed, it may well fizzle as yet another unsustainable model and method for artists and record companies alike. But if we approach these experiments with the type of knee-jerk skepticism and blind pessimism that has accompanied the Swift affair, the Struggling Artist will continue to confront the same roadblocks he faces today.

We should heed Swift’s reminder that good art ought to be valued. But we can do so in a way that retains a wider imagination about the past, the present, and the future — one that appreciates the value of bottom-up empowerment and the type of economic experimentation that got us this far in the first place.

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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