A couple of weeks ago the band Smokey and the Mirror had their album Thin Black Line removed from Spotify because too many of their fans were listening to the album too many times. I was one of those fans. I attended the Album Fundraiser Concert for this album and wrote about it here.
This is their story dealing with Spotify. When Spotify first removed the album I told the story here. Today's post is an update from the band that I thought my readers would be interested in.
We thought we were hip to the streaming age, turns out we had much to learn, and we learned it all in the last two weeks. It all started when our music distributor CD Baby notified us (two weeks ago) that Spotify had removed our new album, Thin Black Line, due to "abusive" listening. The new album was released on April 15th. Starting in April we made a concerted effort to market to our fan base that we were releasing it on Spotify. Physical CD pre-sales were solid, but nothing like our previous releases. We saw all the data and read all the articles about declining CD sales. We followed the Taylor Swift spat with Spotify in late 2014. We at first agreed with her, and then disagreed. We looked ourselves in the mirror and decided it was far better to have this album heard than bought. This in fact is THE Great Issue for musical artists, perhaps all artists, working in today's times. The idea to make it FREE and let your audience find you. This is not really the point of this article. We could write another entire article about it. Don't get lead astray here. This is not about the money artists SHOULD make. We hope we can all agree that artists should be paid more and that artists work their butts off for the money they do make. What this article is about is what we learned about the world of streaming.
It turns out that 75% of Spotify's users are free users. 45 Million of the 60 million users don't pay a dime to listen to Spotify. Spotify still pays a small royalty for each listen coming from a free account. They pay more for the listens from a Premium Account. In reality the paid users are subsidizing the free listeners. Spotify believes that they can succeed in converting free listeners to paid listeners all while growing their user base. According to a January 2015 article by Fast Company, Spotify rapidly expanded from 50 million users to 60 million users in the last two months of 2014 but their rate of free users stayed at 75%. This is the key issue. Can Spotify convert these users to paid customers? Spotify says yes. We don't really know the answer to this question. We do know that we have been paying users for over a year. It was our listening experience as users that was a big part of our decision to make a push with our new album on Spotify. After having our album dropped by Spotify we will no longer be users, paid or free.
What we learned about Spotify’s model is that the artist - the ones populating their platform - can be penalized in Spotify's quest to convert all these free listeners to paid listeners. Once again, don't get led astray here. We are not talking about artists being penalized with less pay. The downward spiral of artist pay for recorded music and the record industry is a discussion for another article. We are talking about the entire model of Spotify having a glaring anti-artist flaw. Read on.
The thing you have to realize is that the first couple of months after releasing a new album all you do is talk about the album everywhere. You try to get folks to listen. Convincing folks to tune into 40 minutes worth of music is a herculean endeavor in 2015. We feel that Thin Black Line is some of our best work. We spent April and May shouting about it from every platform we could.
When notified by CD Baby about our album's removal from Spotify we were devastated. It is hard to describe how it felt. The best analogy we can use is what it must feel like to be an author and have the public library ban your book. It is actually maybe even bigger than that, because Spotify is like the worlds largest Public Music Library in a digital platform available to anyone in the world.
We immediately started an email chain with our rep at CD Baby. We were attempting to get more information as to why this decision had been made. Our rep has been very forthcoming and willing to reply to our email inquiries. We will spare you full email chain, but in a paraphrased format it went something like this:
CD Baby: You have been removed from Spotify
Us: This is absurd. How can this be possible?
CD Baby: Spotify deemed that you had too many listens based on data analysis?
Us: We just released this album and are heavily promoting it
CD Baby: Sometimes bands try and get their fans to listen to a new album a lot and Spofity doesn't like this and deems it abusive.
Us: We want to see the data. This is damaging to our music and our career.
Here we will start with the actual emails:
On Tue, Jun 30, 2015 at 11:42 AM, email@example.com wrote:
Hi Bernice -
I heard back from Spotify earlier this morning actually. I wasn't given a lot of specifics, but the album in question was streamed over 5000 times during the royalty reporting period, and those streams came from a small number of users, which is what led them to removing the album. I wasn't given much more information than that, which is pretty typical in situations like this.
I'm afraid I don't have much else to share with you regarding the removal of the album. Please let me know if you have any additional questions and I'll see what I can do.
- CD Baby
From: Smokey & The Mirror [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Friday, July 03, 2015 3:42 PM
To: CD Baby
Subject: Re: Spotify response
Thanks for the update.
How many is "a small amount of users"? That is vague. Are we talking 4 people or 50?
And I'd still like to know why we the artists are punished for listener's usage - rather than a user being notified and restricted. If that's their policy, then that policy needs to be changed.
As I've said before, pulling the "abused" music makes no sense and is seriously unfair.
Is it Spotify's policy that our music cannot be uploaded again, or is that a CD Baby policy?
Smokey & The Mirror
On Mon, Jul 6, 2015 at 12:35 AM, email@example.com> wrote:
Hi Bernice -
I don't have specific info on the number of users unfortunately.
The policy of pulling the abused music makes sense from the standpoint of a digital music provider - they see streaming abuse as a means by artists to obtain royalty payments that aren't generated by actual legitimate listening, so in order to curb that, they remove the source, which is the music being abused. I believe some music providers have experimented with blocking user accounts that were involved in abusive streaming, but since such accounts are free and can basically be signed up on an unlimited, anonymous basis, it is more practical for them to just remove the content itself. I am not stating any kind of official policy on behalf of any digital music provider, but that is my understanding from dealing with these kinds of takedowns.
Spotify has made the decision not to restore the content, so that is not a CD Baby decision. We also do not make the decision to remove the content either.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
- CD Baby
Back to the article…
First, we are not trying to make a living from streaming royalties. We, like most other artists, make our living from touring and merch sales. Second, as we said previously we resigned ourselves to the fact that the modern music model is to give your music away for free in hopes that your audience will find you. We are paid next to nothing to have our music on streaming services. Why would an artist try to scam Spotify to get next to next to nothing? This doesn’t make any sense.
That being said, we now fully understand the streaming model. Spotify is in an intense dating period with millions of free listeners. They are trying to get them to commit to a long term relationship. They don't want to run off the customer. They also don't want to lose money by having to pay artists for streams from free accounts. So they simply punish the artist. It is the only option in their business model. THIS is the real injustice to artists. Who cares about the pay at this point and if that pay is fair to artists. The real issue is that Spotify feels that artists are expendable. This is the first way that their model is flawed.
Their is a second flaw in their model. Spotify has millions of data regarding listening habits. When a free user signs up for Spotify that free user typically starts off listening to the hits. The listener is trying to find out if this service is worthwhile from a musical standpoint. They are sampling the buffet of musical offerings. When they see a free user sign up and only listen to a handful of artists and or albums, this free user sticks out like a sore thumb. This is another place where Spotify's model is flawed. Their data is from millions of early adopters from the ages of 18-26. What happens when a Folk band encourages our 4000 plus email list and 2600 plus Facebook fans to check out our new album on Spotify. The majority of our fans are not 18-26. Many of our fans let us know that they were signing up for Spotify just to listen to our new album. Well, this looks like abusive listening to Spotify. 4000 listeners is small in the sea of 60 million Spotify users. Shouldn’t Spotify want artists like us to encourage our fans to sign up for Spotify? If they are going to keep growing they are going to have to rely on small and mid-sized artists to convince people to stream their music via Spotify. There exists the flaw. Spotify is not ready for this type of free listener. They are only ready for the free listeners who sign up and have a listening behavior exactly like that of the early adopters. This is further illustrated when you see Ed Sheeran and Passenger having 300+ million listens on their top songs and established artists like John Prine, Emmy Lou Harris, or Jackson Browne having only a couple of million plays on their top songs.
Consider that Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” has just short of 10 million plays, but The Lumineers' Ho Hey has just short of 200 million plays.
Consider that Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” has just over 30 million plays, but Adele's “Rolling in the Deep” has just over 160 million plays.
Consider that Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” has 1.3 million listens, but that Gregory Alan Isakov’s “Big Black Car” has 12.1 Million plays.
The third way their model is flawed is that they have opened artists up to censorship by anyone that can open a free account and start streaming an artist they would like to see kicked off Spotify. Don’t like a specific artist? Start streaming their music on repeat and watch their album disappear with no consequence to you as the listener. We are not encouraging people to take this approach. We are only pointing out that it is possible in Spotify’s model, and if so, then Spotify’s model is flawed.
We could go on longer, but we rest our case. We have a damn good album that has been banned from Spotify. We are heartbroken about it, but we are going to keep sharing it from any platform possible. We also hope that the world of streaming will get its act together and find a place where artists are not expendable.
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I was born in 1956 in Madison, Tennessee, while my parents were attending Madison College. I grew up along the Front Range in Colorado, attending schools in Longmont, Brighton, Boulder and Loveland, Colorado. Two years after graduating from Campion Academy, I married my sweetheart, Regina. We lived in Loveland, Colorado for six years before moving to Mena in western Arkansas.
I love the people of Mena and the friendly easy going way of life here. I have owned and operated my own business since moving to Mena. I enjoy the natural beauty of western Arkansas and being out of doors.
My newspaper column in The Mena Star, An Arkie’s Faith, premiered on January 7, 2016. In March 2017, I published my first book, titled An Arkie's Faith, using articles from the column.