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Will Butler On The Neil Young Versus Spotify Battle

Will Butler
Will Butler

As the Neil Young vs Spotify battle continues, Arcade Fire’s Will Butler weighed in on the controversy in an article he penned for the Atlantic, and he brought up some interesting and thoughtful points to the conversation. If he supports Neil Young’s decision to take his music off Spotify, he reminds us that the decision is not that simple for many musicians, including Young who signed away his legal rights to his label and sold half of his song catalog right for $150 million last year: “The rights of speech and association are, as always, constrained by contracts and commerce—in the arts as much as in the tech world,” writes Butler. On his website, Neil Young said he got the support from his label Warner Bros, and Hypgnosis, “I want to thank my partners for standing with me,” he wrote, but Neil Young is a powerful man, and I imagine it’s probably not this easy for many artists.

To Butler, “the dispute between Young and Spotify over Rogan’s show says much more about what is happening to the music business than it does about free expression or artistic integrity.” And he is right, an established artist like Neil Young has a privilege that plenty of young artists do not have. But more than having the privilege to control one’s catalog, Neil Young can also afford to lose a significant amount of money. Billboard estimated that quitting Spotify could cost him $754K a year, but when you have just made a deal of $150 million, it may not be such a big sacrifice.

I was reading a few comments after articles on the subject and plenty of artists were commenting on the fact that, even though they agreed with Young, they could not afford to withdraw their music from Spotify. As Butler wrote, Spotify is part of many people’s lives and it is a tool that plenty of artists use to get some exposure and makes some money, even though they are not happy with the deal. Musicians have a love-hate relationship with Spotify: it is “a hero, having brought new money to artists and labels when the music industry had hit rock bottom in the mid-2010s.” However, “it is a villain, paying pitifully low royalties per stream to artists.”

Butler continues by saying that Spotify doesn’t even care about what podcast they are hosting, Spotify doesn’t care about ideology, science, or even racism – now that old footage of Joe Rogan saying the N-word and mentioning “the Planet of the Ape” have surfaced. Podcasts, and especially successful podcasts like Joe Rogan’s, are just content and a way to make money for Spotify: “The podcast-advertising ecosystem is still lush enough to support additional harvesting,” Butler continues. “Spotify is betting that what used to be known as the music industry is in fact dead but that maybe the company can make money in the “audio industry.” But that shift involves decisions that disappoint even people jaded by years of experience with the recording business.”

What started as a fight over ideology – Neil Young protesting misinformation about vaccines – has become a fight over money, and most musicians are more pissed off at Rogan’s contract with Spotify than the content of his podcast: “Spotify paid $100 million for the right to exclusively host Joe Rogan’s podcast. I don’t know many musicians who actually care deeply about the content of that podcast, but they are aware of the pitiful amounts—in most cases!—that come their way from Spotify. Many would gladly follow Neil Young off the platform if they could afford it and it didn’t mean severing connections to people who want to hear their music. In the context of the devaluation of so many artists’ work, the backing of Rogan feels like a particularly nihilistic move. Spotify didn’t sign him for his talent or care at all about his impact—good or ill—on the world; with a heartless, almost video-game sensibility, they signed him to take market share from Apple and Google (and Pandora, I guess). Complaints against bloodless businessmen are hardly new. But what’s happening in music today feels less like individual acts of exploitation and more like the razing of an ecosystem.”

In the end, Spotify is holding the music industry together: Now that the internet exists, Spotify allows the survival of the big record companies with giant deals that are completely unfair to artists. Most artists have no choice, and only musicians of Neil Young’s status, with a catalog established decades ago, can afford to boycott Spotify because they are rich enough. In this new ecosystem, solidarity is not even an option, new artists are completely screwed and only the big fish can survive comfortably while having the luxury to make ethical decisions “That new ways of doing business are destroying the possibility of a creative middle class,” Butler writes.

Neil Young is now even asking for much more:” To the musicians and creators in the world, I say this: You must be able to find a better place than Spotify to be the home of your art,” he wrote in a new statement on his website. “To the workers at Spotify, I say Daniel Ek is your big problem – not Joe Rogan. Ek pulls the strings. Get out of that place before it eats up your soul. The only goals stated by Ek are about numbers – not art, not creativity.” I am not saying he is wrong, but it’s probably not an easy thing to do for the average worker. At the same time, are other streaming platforms more ethical? Amazon music may pay more its artists (0.01196 per stream instead of 0.00318 for Spotify) but as we know Amazon doesn’t have the reputation to treat its employees with high ethics. Shouldn’t Amazon workers’ conditions be also a concern?

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