Spotify's Continuing Problems: Kevin Erickson of the Future of Music Coalition Speaks Out

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
photo by Chesnot/Getty Images

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A few weeks ago on Sound & Vision, they talked about Neil Young giving Spotify an ultimatum: pull the Joe Rogan podcast because of misinformation about COVID or remove his catalogues. Neil Young’s catalogues were removed with permission from his label. Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and India Aire pulled their catalogues from Spotify as well. Then, Spotify removed dozens of episodes of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast because he used the n-word. Spotify went on to say they are committing 100 million dollars for licensing, development, marketing of music and audio content from historically marginalized groups. Kevin Erickson is the Director of the Future of Music Coalition and has been vocal about his and his group's reaction to all this news.

KEXP: You tweeted on the Future of Music Coalition's Twitter that Black musicians should not be treated as carbon offsets to all of this fallout. Tell me more about your reaction to this latest news. 

Kevin Erickson: Well, what I was trying to do there, I guess, is to give voice to the feeling that's coming from a lot of musicians: that this company is really trying to have it both ways. Spotify is funding programing that has this long history of including racist rhetoric, as well as vaccine disinformation. Spotify is elevating that content on its platform, promoting it above other material on that platform and profiting from that content, while still refusing to take any real accountability for the impact of it. You know, musicians are, of course, big defenders of free speech. The Future of Music has actually gone all the way up to the Supreme Court in defense of free speech, but speech has consequences. And Spotify is just not acknowledging those consequences, the impacts of the content that they're commissioning. They have not been accountable really to critics, either inside the company or outside the company. You can't be accountable for damage that you've done simply by funding something on the other sides. You can't "both sides" white supremacy. Now I want to be clear, like more investment by Spotify in diverse voices is good, and I don't want to undercut the efforts of the employees of the company that have been trying to encourage more of that kind of investment towards Black creators, towards historically marginalized communities, towards queer and trans people. Those are the kinds of efforts that are happening within a lot of different digital media companies, and we want to be supportive of those. But we also have to acknowledge that that's just a wholly inadequate response to the harm that we've experienced here. 

COVID disinformation, including the kind of disinformation that Joe Rogan is actively spreading, that Spotify is commissioning him to do, is actively harming musicians right now.

You work so much with music policy on the national level. Besides this latest news with Spotify and Joe Rogan, going back to the Neil Young stuff from a few weeks ago, watching this all unfold as you analyze the music industry policy stuff — what has been your overall reaction to all of this fallout around Joe Rogan and musicians? 

It is true that musicians have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Some of us have lost friends and colleagues and loved ones, of course, but a lot of musicians have also lost work. Lost income. Live touring is still not really back, you know. A positive test on the road and all your dates get canceled. The entire tour ends up in the red, and that's lost income for everybody on the tour: the crew, the venues. COVID disinformation, including the kind of disinformation that Joe Rogan is actively spreading, that Spotify is commissioning him to do, is actively harming musicians right now. Now, Spotify does deserve credit for the little bit of work that they did in supporting pandemic relief legislation. They did make donations totaling about $10 million to various music-related relief causes. They deserve some credit for that. But, you know, $10 million for a company of that size, you know... Do the math, that works out to maybe point .1% of their overall annual revenue. It's a drop in the bucket. So again, while musicians really do support free speech, one of the ways that musicians express themselves and express their freedom is to make creative choices about who they want to be in business with and how they want their work to appear and where they want their work to appear. So, if somebody like Neil makes a choice and says, "I don't want to work with a business that makes these kinds of investments and this kind of content," that's not censorship, that's freedom. 

I also saw that you were tweeting about how there's a lack of leverage artists have with big digital services. We're seeing these these big artists be able to make a stand, but these are people that don't necessarily need Spotify for income. I've talked to many independent artists who are like, "yeah, I'd love to pull my music from Spotify, but like then I just become irrelevant in the streaming era." I'm curious where indie artists fall in this whole thing as well. 

I think that's actually where the disinformation piece and the artist royalties piece, as well as the racist content piece, all sort of come together. Spotify is so big and so powerful that they can really resist accountability, some of the normal forms of accountability that musicians would otherwise be able to have. In a healthy, functional music marketplace, artists could choose. I'm not comfortable with this. I'm going to withdraw my catalog and I'm going to go somewhere else with it. In a marketplace where Spotify has such a dominant role, it becomes really difficult to, whether financially or because you're dependent on Spotify's access to audiences with their large market share. You could be dependent on Spotify for the metrics, because some booking agencies and venues make their booking decisions based on how many Spotify plays you have. Withdrawing your catalogs as a small, independent artist is a move that can be a really, really difficult call to make, that may not even be available. And that's before you even get into the questions about whether an artist is legally able to do that. A lot of musicians do not own their own sound recording rights. They work with a label, and so the label is ultimately the one that is going to be able to make the call about whether whether it goes on the platform or not. You know, Neil has a great relationship with Warner [Bros. Records], and Warner was able to abide by his wishes. Other labels may not be able to be as accommodating. In fact, dependent on licensing agreements that they signed, they might not be able to fulfill an artist's wishes even if they wanted to. 

Thinking about this pay part, you know, a lot of people have been talking about, again, high profile musicians taking a stand against Joe Rogan by removing themselves on Spotify. And while Spotify only pays a fraction of a penny for each song streamed on its services, they're paying Joe Rogan $100 million for his podcast. Musicians are the ones that allow Spotify to be Spotify. I mean, they're the ones that built Spotify up in the first place. What have been your thoughts when it comes to equitable pay for musicians? 

Yeah, you know, it does put it into sharp relief, the contrast between the big investment and the micro pennies that were expected to scrap things together for them. And it's important to think about the reasons why — the structural reasons why — musicians lack leverage. You know, musicians just don't have many of the normal workplace protections that people who have more traditional employment relationships often enjoy. In some contract negotiation context, you can have the representation of a union or somebody like that. The kind of collective bargaining rights that would be necessary for musicians to negotiate a better framework with Spotify, they really don't have a vehicle for that. So that's something that needs to be addressed on a public policy level. But beyond that, you know, it isn't just about increasing the rate. It's about creating the conditions where a broader diversity of companies are competing to better serve the diversity of the music population and creating different models that work for different kinds of musicians that have different assumptions about the potential scale of the audience that they're trying to reach. You shouldn't have to be a superstar to make a living in music. 

You shouldn't have to be a superstar to make a living in music. 

While we've been focused a lot on music streaming in this conversation, you know, I'm speaking to you from a radio station, a radio broadcast. While all of this news was kind of happening in the past week, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the American Music Fairness Act, which would require radio stations to pay royalties. The U.S. is reportedly only one of four countries that doesn't pay royalties for music played. I'm curious, what's the latest on that legislation? 

Well, so that was a fun hearing. On Wednesday, Gloria Estefan of the Miami Sound Machine testified, as well as Dave Pomeroy, a union musician session player — bassist, plays on Emmylou Harris records, that kind of thing, as well as a studio owner from Tennessee — just sort of talking about the impact on them and their communities. That for all these years, radio has never had to pay the performers. They do pay the songwriters, they pay the publishers, but they've never paid the performers of the music. And, you know, it really does connect to the Spotify royalties issue. It means that even indie musicians who will never get played on big time commercial radio, will never end up being played on IHeartRadio, still can be impacted by this because Spotify can always say, "if you don't like the crumbs that we're offering you, if you don't like your low royalty rates, well, radio is going to pay you nothing at all, so you better be happy with what with what you're getting." And so until we fix these value gaps, until we fix the places the value is draining out of the industry, draining out of music. We don't really have a shot at fixing the problem of valuing music in the digital space.

So, the tenor of the hearing was towards increased bipartisan support and consensus. We saw groups with broadly varying views about copyright generally endorsing the bill for the first time. We saw community broadcast groups coming out in favor of the bill and, you know, the National Association of Broadcasters, who represents the commercial broadcasters in these debates, really coming up short in terms of a compelling rationale for why this inequity has continued for all of these years. So I'm hopeful. Congress is a crazy place. It's a volatile political environment right now. It continues to be. But this is one of those issues that doesn't necessarily break down along clean partisan lines and where I think some real consensus could be found that musicians are workers, musicians' labor has value, and there isn't one silver bullet to fix it all. It's going to be a little piece here, a little piece here, but step by step we can get towards a more equitable policy environment that serves diverse communities and serves diverse musicians. 

Do we know what will happen next with the American Music Fairness Act? What are the next steps to keep it or let it move forward? 

We had the hearing and after the hearing comes potentially a markup and then a committee vote, and then it would go to the full house. It will need a companion bill in the Senate, of course. And so we're all eyes are on the Senate to see if the Senate introduces similar legislation. 

I think that there are a lot of music listeners that are looking for like, what is the right way to be a music fan? What is the right way to be a music consumer?

Is there anything else that you want to add about where we are in terms of music royalties, streaming, and what it all says about the music industry right now?

I think that there are a lot of music listeners that are looking for like, what is the right way to be a music fan? What is the right way to be a music consumer? And looking at the array of digital options that are out there and finding problems with so many of them, you know? Spotify is currently suing to reduce the amount of money that they are paying songwriters, but so is Amazon and Pandora and Google, all at the same time. So like, where do you go? The answer that I like to offer is ask musicians, talk to musicians, ask them what is most helpful. The answer that you're going to get is going to be different from musician to musician. But having open lines of communication there and knowing directly from them -- like, what means of support is going to be most meaningful for them -- is a good principle to go by. And by the way, it's also something that people who are working at digital companies can do. So many of the reasons that we get into these problems -- these intense debates about whether this digital service is actually helping musicians or not -- is because they've failed through the process of development through coming up with these new models to really iteratively ask through the process of development musicians, diverse musicians: What do you need? What would help you? What would help you really advance your career? What would help you get to a more sustainable place? Yeah. So, talk to musicians more. Everybody always should. 

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