In recent days, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and the Crazy Horse member and E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren made headlines when they pulled their music from Spotify. Although the streaming giant has long drawn criticism from artists for paying out especially paltry royalties, Young, Mitchell, and Lofgren were taking a different type of stand: They challenged the vaccine misinformation being spread on shock jock Joe Rogan's Spotify-exclusive podcast. Spotify has responded by adding content advisories to podcast episodes that discuss COVID-19, but for the moment the three rock vets' music remains unavailable on CEO Daniel Ek's platform. Now that a precedent has been set for artists leaving Spotify, will others follow suit?
Regardless of where one sits in the endless streaming debates, the answer is: probably not. Most artists simply don't have the legal right to remove their music from one streaming platform or another. In fact, even Young had to rely on the good graces of his record label. "Before I told my friends at Warner Bros about my desire to leave the Spotify platform, I was reminded by my own legal forces that contractually I did not have the control of my music to do that," Young wrote on his website on January 26. "I want to thank my truly great and supportive record company Warner Brothers-Reprise Records, for standing with me in my decision to pull all my music from Spotify."
The contractual obstacles to an artist of even Young's stature pulling their recordings from Spotify underscores how the byzantine details of U.S. copyright law directly affect the way Americans consume music. Labels often strike deals to secure artists' "master rights," in other words the copyright to the original or "master" version of a sound recording (as opposed to the copyright to the underlying composition, or the notes and lyrics written on a page). A dispute over masters ownership is what led Taylor Swift, in 2019, to begin re-recording her back catalog. If Swift wanted to remove the Taylor's Version records from Spotify, presumably she could, but not the original versions. As Prince famously told Rolling Stone in 1996, "If you don't own your masters, your master owns you." And that was before Prince's own battles with streaming companies.
In the wake of Young's music removal, other artists have quickly realized the limits of their ability to do the same. The alt-rock band Belly changed their artist images on Spotify to read "DELETE SPOTIFY," but they have acknowledged that actually taking down their music was "difficult" and "very complicated," despite sharing a rights holder with Young, Warner Music. "When a record label loans an artist the money to record material they expect a return on that investment and that expectation is reflected in contractual obligations and usage/control rights," Belly told Variety in a statement. "What this means is that we cannot unilaterally decide to pull our work from Spotify, at least for our 1990s releases - we have to request that the label we were under contract with do it. Like other major labels, the one that controls our '90s masters has deals with Spotify, and as a more-or-less financially inconsequential act that has likely been bundled into a deal along with the label's other financially inconsequential acts, it gets complicated trying to extract our material from Spotify."
Young's former Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young bandmate David Crosby evidently ran into similar troubles. Asked on Twitter if Crosby would be removing his own catalog from Spotify, he responded, "I no longer control it or I would in support of Neil." As Music Business Worldwide notes, Crosby's situation reflects the wider industry trend of legacy artists selling off the rights to their catalogs. Although Young early last year sold a 50 percent stake in his compositions to the publishing firm Hipgnosis, which he publicly thanked along with Warner for its support last week, Crosby shortly afterward sold his entire catalog - including the master rights - to music executive Irving Azoff's Iconic Artists Group. "Given our current inability to work live, this deal is a blessing for me and my family and I do believe these are the best people to do it with," Crosby said at the time.
What will be fascinating to watch is whether the relative handful of artists who are free to take action decide to leverage their clout against Spotify or similar tech giants. Bryan Müller, the electronic producer who records as Skee Mask, recently removed all of his albums and EPs from Spotify, writing on January 2, "My music will be available there again as soon as this company starts (somehow) becoming honest & respectful towards music makers." While Young and Mitchell were motivated by anti-vax issues, Müller alluded to Ek's recent €100 million investment in German defense AI company Helsing. Ilan Tape, the Munich-based label behind Skee Mask's releases, also pulled its entire back catalog from the platform, explaining only that it was "time for a change."
Still, the prevailing impression seems to persist that artists need to be on Spotify or else risk being invisible in the modern equivalent of the record store and the radio wrapped into one: Streaming made up 84 percent of U.S. record industry revenue in the first half of 2021, and Spotify is the world's biggest streaming service. Even artists who have publicly battled the company still make their music available on its platform.
In early trading today, Spotify shares rebounded by 12 percent, after the Young controversy previously erased more than $2 billion in the company's market value. Meanwhile, Citigroup's brokerage upgraded its rating on the stock from "neutral" to "buy," citing confidence in the company's advertising business. It's a sad reminder that by the cold logic of the marketplace, Joe Rogan is more valuable to Spotify than Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and podcasts are more profitable than music.
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