Damage Done is an exploration on the effects of music streaming services from the perspective of everyday listeners.


The recent Apple-Taylor Swift incident got me thinking again about how unethical I consider music streaming royalty rates to be.

The argument exists that a) non-paying Spotify users generate revenue by suffering through ads, and b) paying customers... pay, even if the money that trickles down to artists is more formality than fiscal reality. The ethicality and equitability of the arrangement, then, is solely dependent on the contractual terms between producer, consumer and middleman, and since everyone is a rational actor and signed up to the deal, it's a square deal for all. I personally don't subscribe to that argument even as I support the system by paying for Spotify.

My justification for using Spotify has always been that I use it to try music, which I then buy in order to better support the artist. After that, continuing to stream the music is a convenience. I’ve never lived up to my ethical pact though, and forgot about it until Ironsword's new album came out.

Ironsword is on Shadow Kingdom Records, which chooses to not put most of their releases on Spotify. Knowing that, I ordered the album. Soon after, I discovered it was on Spotify, and my immediate reaction was "shit, I just wasted $15 buying a CD when I could've streamed it for free."

Spotify is the Wal-Mart of music consumption. Using Spotify is just enough to keep bands on life support, just enough for them to drive to the welfare office, even though $10 a month for unlimited streams of a huge library is an unbelievable deal for consumers. Err, fans.

I decided to see just how unbelievable a deal it had been for me in 2014. I ran a search on Metal Archives for all full-length albums that came out in 2014. I combed through the releases to see which ones I listened to on Spotify and liked well enough to purchase.

But how many did I actually purchase?

Zero. None. Nothing.

I can recall at least 25 albums from 2014 available on Spotify that I should've purchased. The actual number is larger, because the study didn’t include any non-metal albums I should have purchased, and a second comb-through would likely show records I glossed over the first time. Being a music writer, let’s assume that my album consumption is unusually high and estimate that the average person finds 25 albums to be worthy of purchase in the course of a year.

The math: Spotify Premium costs $10 a month. Assuming $7 an mp3 album and 25+ purchases, I saved over $55 dollars ($175 less the $120 for one year of Spotify), but $7 might be a low figure for an mp3 album. If I'd purchased CDs or vinyl records, we'd be talking about well over $130 ($250 less the year of Spotify, and that’s not including sales tax) saved. If I hadn't been paying for Spotify, I would have saved over $175 and $250, respectively. I cut somewhere between 69% and 52% of my total spending on purchasing those 25 albums in 2014.

Again, all of those numbers are lowballed because I estimated instead of meticulously figuring out exactly how many albums I should've purchased but didn't. There are dozens of albums on Spotify from 2014 that I still want to hear, so Spotify hasn't stopped saving me money yet.

Here's another way to conceptualize that: the average American lives to be almost 80 years old. If I pay $10 a month until I'm 80, then I'll pay less than $6,000 for access to those 2014 albums, plus all the other albums I want to hear.

Consider as well: I'm an abnormally spendy music fan. If streaming services and legal mp3 sales didn't exist in 2014 - partying like it's 1999, in other words - my music bill for the year might have exceeded one thousand dollars, because I'd have to buy every album on CD.

Most listeners don't want to buy an album, though. They want a few songs, typically the singles, which they add to their Walking The Dog playlist, their Making A Sandwich playlist, and so on. It's not hard then to see why the music industry is hurting so badly. Now throw in all of those consumers who were paying $20 a CD when they really wanted two or three songs. Reduce their spending to a dollar per selected song, then reduce it again to the microscopic royalty paid per stream.

I'm not going to tell anyone exactly how much I spent on music in 2014. I spent way too much, but arguably I spent less than I should have. The bulk of what I did purchase, it turns out, isn't available on Spotify. Between legal streaming and legal purchases, I maximized the value of my spending, as you'd expect any consumer to try and do.

The message is clear: if it was on Spotify, I’m not going to purchase it. Given how little money from streaming makes its way into a band's hands, I feel really shitty about that. I’m going to reconsider my purchasing habits and they may soon exclude Spotify and other streaming services. Now that you’ve seen how much I saved - or how much I didn’t pay to bands - it might be time for you to reconsider your purchasing habits as well.

— Richard Street-Jammer


More From Invisible Oranges