Spotify's bullying economy: Why the streaming service should stop guilt-tripping Taylor Swift

After Swift decided to pull her back catalog, Spotify reacted--poetically enough--like an obsessive ex

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published November 4, 2014 4:00PM (EST)

Taylor Swift        (AP/Wade Payne)
Taylor Swift (AP/Wade Payne)

When Taylor Swift removed her back catalog from Spotify this week, the online music streaming platform reacted, poetically enough, like an obsessive ex. This is Swift’s moment—her new album “1989” is expected to break sales records, taking the opening-week top sales title from Britney Spears, who sold more than 1.3 million copies of “Oops! … I Did It Again” in 2000, a bit of trivia that seems impossibly quaint now.

Swift didn't release "1989" on Spotify, but the spike in interest was bound to drive fans back to 2012's "Red" and albums past. Of course Spotify wants to capitalize on Swiftmania by pushing that back catalog front and center, so they tried to lure her back with that time-honored take-me-back strategy: guilt. Posted, along with a borderline-creepy playlist that spells out a plea for her to come back, is a statement that begins: “We love Taylor Swift, and our more than 40 million users love her even more—nearly 16 million of them have played her songs in the last 30 days, and she’s on over 19 million playlists.”

This shameless appeal to Swift’s well-documented accessibility (those listening parties!) and attention to fan-need detail (“I’ve been on the internet for hours every single night figuring out what these people want from me”) is classic guilt-mongering: what, you’re too good for us now?

But you can’t overdo guilt. As my mother could teach you, a little goes a long way. The next strategy: stoke the backlash fires that might be simmering by suggesting that Swift is out of touch with the common (broke) man: “We hope she’ll change her mind and join us in building a new music economy that works for everyone. We believe fans should be able to listen to music wherever and whenever they want, and that artists have an absolute right to be paid for their work and protected from piracy.”

Spotify’s music economy doesn’t work for everyone, and they know it, because she’s not the first artist to try to control when Spotify users have access to her work—Coldplay, Beyoncé, and Black Keys have all withheld or staggered (called “windowing”) their releases on the platform, kind of like how films aren’t all released straight to Netflix or Blu-ray at once. Swift tried that with “1989,” Spotify fired back with a “disappointed” warning shot, and Swift answered by yanking her back catalog for the time being. Lesser-known artists can gain valuable exposure and performance royalties from online streaming platforms. Swift doesn’t need that, and Spotify hates it when artists can decide how they want to get paid for their work—she’s not the first to feel the passive-aggressive Spotify burn.

In 2012, chief content officer Ken Parks told Fast Company he feels Spotify-avoidance is “a pretty hostile proposition” that punishes “your best customers and fans,” even going so far as to try to take no less than Paul McCartney on a guilt trip, pressuring him to make his work “available to young kids who predominate our platform, and—let's be honest—might not have heard of him.” Sir Paul, won’t someone think of the children? Oh, and your legacy, NBD. Listen, Spotify’s only saying what everyone’s thinking. Really, Spotify’s just telling you this for your own good. It’s not exactly the creepy P.S. offered to Swift in echo of her own lyrics (“Taylor, we were both young when we first saw you, but now there’s more than 40 million of us who want you to stay, stay, stay. It’s a love story, baby, just say, Yes.”) but the sentiment is the same, and maybe it even worked—McCartney rejoined streaming services later that year.

It’s in Spotify’s best business interest to have as much of the most in-demand music available on their platform, sure. But shaming others over their business decisions to more tightly control the release and availability of their work is a bizarre communications strategy that exploits the lazier expectations of the free-content economy—why U so mean, Taylor?!—while deflecting real questions about the power struggle between platforms and content creators, about controlling how and when music is unveiled online. While Spotify and Swift fight this one out, a suggestion in the meantime to broke Swift fans who want to hear her music: this platform called the radio, it still exists. It’s free. You don’t even need wifi, and your favorite blockbuster pop stars are all over it.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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Paul Mccartney Spotify Taylor Swift