Spotify May Reinforce Many Music Industry Power Imbalances, but a Few Artists Are Using It to Upend Others

Kim Petras, Charli XCX, and Taylor Swift in front of logos for Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music.
Kim Petras, Charli XCX, and Taylor Swift have all carved their own paths through streaming.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images for iHeartMedia, Paul Kane/Getty Images, and Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for InStyle.

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Spotify, you’ve probably been told, is bad for artists. It makes them adapt their music to fussy algorithms and playlist-ability if they want to maximize streams. It incentivizes producing more music—though not necessarily more good music (see: streambait pop, the entire genre of “chill”). It reinforces power imbalances in the industry and a male-centric status quo. And perhaps most galling, it nickel-and-dimes creators. As Taylor Swift wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2014, the same year she removed her entire catalog from the popular streaming service, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” (She re-added her music in 2017.)

But, wait, haven’t you also been told that Spotify is good for artists? After all, streaming now brings in more money in revenue for the industry than physical, digital, or performance-rights sales. And for burgeoning artists who may not have the means or the luck to catch the eye of executives at big record companies, Spotify offers opportunities to secure exposure and, just maybe, fame.

The truth is that, as the above suggests, streaming platforms like Spotify are both salt and salve, and it’s largely impossible to break their effect on musicians down into neat, declarative categories. This is especially true for artists at society’s margins—poor artists, artists of color, queer artists, and artists at the various junctures of these traits and identities—who likely can’t risk pulling a Swift-like move by opting out altogether. The more interesting—and more useful—question isn’t the one that merely asks whether streaming is good or bad. It’s the one that recognizes that the challenges that may appear unique to streaming mirror issues that have long afflicted artists contending with various corporate gatekeepers within the music industry. Given that these issues tend to replicate across modes of distribution, how can creators and fans help empower artists facing the perverse incentives and exploitation brought by these new platforms?

Understanding the scope of the streaming dilemma requires looking at artists beyond the Top 40 regulars. Consider the bubblegum voice of newcomer Kim Petras. Born in Cologne, Germany, the 26-year-old singer first captured attention not for her music but for something else: publicity surrounding her gender transition at a young age (Petras started hormone therapy in 2004, at age 12, and finished her full gender transition by age 16). For years, she struggled to launch a music career in Germany. Petras told the Daily Beast last year that producers perceived her music as “too pop” for her home market, so she took her ambitions to Los Angeles. In 2017, she independently released her debut single, “I Don’t Want It at All,” in which she performs desire for the gloss of celebrity. “Give me all of your attention/ Give me summer in the Hamptons,” she sings on the song’s chorus. “If I cannot get it right now/ I don’t want it, I don’t want it, I don’t want it at all.” Fortunately for Petras, popularity wasn’t too far away: Her track topped Spotify’s Global Viral 50 chart later that year, and a star was born.

Petras’ success has been steady. Since her mainstream debut, she’s worked with Spotify to release a string of bops (including a Halloween-inspired EP) without ever signing to a major label. She’s also teamed up with some of the most beloved artists in the industry, including gay crooner Troye Sivan. And yet, in some ways, Petras is still facing some of the same problems that streaming has sought to correct. For one, powerful industry players can still puppeteer behind the scenes. As the Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber wrote last year, Lukasz Gottwald—aka Dr. Luke, the titan producer who’s been engaged in a yearslong and very public legal dispute with Kesha, who’s accused the pop hit-maker of abuse—has managed to find “behind the boards” work with Spotify songstress Petras, having co-produced eight of her singles. In doing so, Kornhaber writes, Gottwald “may have found a quieter, if catchier, way to bypass the obstacle of his reputation” and still profit.

In addition, even with the promise of label liberation that Spotify can provide, it comes with limitations. As Petras told the blog of music-services company AWAL last year, she recognizes the difficulty of working without the perks that attend bigger backing (think things like help building good PR on social media, planning tours, and collaborating with label mates) and said that, at times, she thinks that it’d be easier to have label support. But, Petras clarified, “I want to innovate and be able to experiment with the way I release music,” and credited streaming platforms for opening up the business to independent artists like her in ways that “wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago.”

But Petras’ views—and the views of many others—that streaming platforms mostly offer musicians more freedom are far from universal. Artists including David Byrne, Joanna Newsom, Thom Yorke, Neil Young, and Björk have all had barbed words for the way Spotify treats artists. And it’s not just Spotify that’s had a mixed report card. Similar criticisms have beset Pandora, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and others.

Or take, for instance, the challenges beleaguering Tidal. On the one hand, it’s an admirably entrepreneurial project. Jay-Z acquired the streaming service in 2015 and intended for it to be a more favorable platform for artists: better royalties per stream, artists as “co-owners,” higher music quality, and no cheapening of music with a free, ad-based version. More broadly, Jay-Z has had an eye to fostering better terms for black creators; he says as much on his track “Smile”: “So our music is ours, niggas own their own houses/ Ours was, ‘Fuck you, pay me’/ Now it’s, ‘Fuck payin’ me, I pay you.’ ” At the same time, Tidal has been hit by fraud accusations and claims that its exclusives may harm artists because the tactic can spur music piracy. These problems underscore how today’s musicians are still bounded by an industry that’s learning how to adapt to streaming—and how that transition has hardly been perfect for many artists.

Surely musicians, especially those who already have some degree of cachet, and fans can do more to break artists out of this cycle of exploitation, right? While finding sustainable models for creating and distributing all kinds of media in the digital age remains an open question, there may be glimpses of some smaller moves making a difference.

For instance, there’s value, I think, in how Charli XCX—pop’s cult leader—approaches music. In 2017, the relentless star, fed up over delays to her third studio album and “very frustrated and annoyed” with her label, Atlantic Records, set out to create, behind her label’s back, a free mixtape for fans that would be “essentially an album.” Atlantic Records ultimately found out and put a price tag on the mixtape, the exquisite Number 1 Angel. But it still showed that a respected name like Charli XCX was able to buck album norms to produce music on (some of) her own terms.

Another key element of Charli XCX’s music-making vision is her sharp attention to which people appear on her tracks. Her collaborators on her other 2017 mixtape, the equally exceptional Pop 2, are largely artists from minority and marginalized communities—the sort big record companies and streaming services may overlook or be reluctant to endorse. Check the glitchy glam of “I Got It,” with Brooke Candy, CupcakKe, and Pabllo Vittar, or the twinkling otherworldliness of “Unlock It,” featuring Petras and Jay Park. “This mixtape isn’t necessarily about me—it’s really about giving everybody their moment to own the song,” Charli XCX told Fader. At a moment when the gap between 1 percent megastars like Swift and everyone else seems to be widening, Charli XCX is trying to shrink it, one assist-giving, forward-thinking pop production at a time.

There are also artists like Noname, the Chicago rapper pushing the boundaries of artist autonomy in the business. In 2018, Spotify consulted with Noname (Fatimah Warner) and other independent artists to launch a new feature that invites unsigned artists to upload their music directly to the streaming platform at no charge, and without having to go through a distributor or a third-party company (as was the case before). It’s a big deal, since the distributor arrangement, alongside other barriers on the platform, had always tilted power almost insurmountably in favor of creators signed to major labels. The direct upload feature is, as of now, invite only. But, as Marc Hogan wrote at Pitchfork, “the potential ramifications [of this sort of move] are huge—not just for the music business, but for music itself.”

Fans, too, owe it to the artists they love to try to seek and listen to music in a way that supports the creators. Last year, the musician Damon Krukowski offered some constructive ideas for how consumers, through “slow collective effort” to “work around the Spotify/Apple Music model,” can be more responsible music lovers. In a piece for Pitchfork, he encourages fans, among other things, to support competing (and even free) models of sharing. This includes patronizing the online music store Bandcamp, often lauded for how it empowers artists by allowing them to set the price of their music. It also includes mixing up your music media diet more generally to at least partly divvy up where and how artistic control is concentrated.

The streaming landscape is more complicated than it may look at first glance—a reality that’s too often blurred by the superstars who usually take center stage in the public narratives. But if you look at the artists who have both the most to gain and the most to lose in the streaming age, you’ll notice not only how tricky it all is but also how fascinating it can be. Indeed, while they may be acting mostly on the edges, it’s these artists who, in various ways, are showing a path of small steps that can make the future of music both good to and good for more creators.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.