Football, Spotify and the Future of Music

For forty-eight hours, newsreels across the world were put on pause for one of the most staggering displays of sporting elitism and opportunism in history. The short-lived European Super League (ESL) promised an unforeseen battleground of European football’s titans in their own division, and almost ensured the demise of the Champions League and domestic leagues altogether.

The backlash, however, was insurmountable for the organisers of the ESL, led by the likes of Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and Manchester United owner Joel Glazer. It was quickly characterised as a grab for economic superiority and longevity for the partaking clubs and a severe misstep by the financiers that was deemed completely out of touch with the fans and wider footballing culture.

Supporters groups, most notably in England, mobilised so quickly that an evening’s exodus of six English clubs brought the plans to a grinding halt. Even some managers and players from these teams publicly spoke out against the move, further denting its hopes of fruition.

The ESL probably hasn’t seen its last day, though. Perez had dubbed it as a move to “save football” (from what is unclear) and insists that “binding contracts” means that clubs who have supposedly left the scheme are still caught in the cross-fire of the ESL, their own fans and the fury of national competitions. Only time will tell if its head is reared again.

Florentino Perez

But the already generally negative opinion of the clubs’ owners have depleted to the point of almost total disillusionment. For some clubs, such as Arsenal and Tottenham, there were questions around their actual legitimacy in joining Europe’s elite given their lack of domestic success over the last decade. After losing the Carabao Cup final in April, Tottenham haven’t won a trophy of any sort since 2008.

Arsenal’s situation, meanwhile, has seen drastic development following the failed ESL. On the wave of anger towards American owner Stan Kroenke, who was an already unpopular figure in North London, Daniel Ek tweeted his intention to purchase the club who he had supported “as long as I can remember”. His intentions attracted the support of club legends Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, too.

Yet Daniel Ek is no stranger to controversy, particularly in the music industry. As the founder and owner of streaming service Spotify, his service has faced unmitigated calls to increase the pay-per-stream to artists who upload their music. According to the Soundcharts blog, Spotify pays artists $0.0032 (£0.0023) per stream, lower than, but not dissimilar to, the rates Deezer, Tidal, Apple Music and Amazon Music.

Let’s try and put this into some sort of perspective. One of the most notable public criticisms of Spotify’s pay structure came from Meghan Trainor, who earned only £4,400 from over 178 million streams of her single ‘All About That Bass’ on Spotify. Electronic musician Jon Hopkins also calculated that he had made £8 from 90 thousand streams of his material.

In normal times, streaming was a subsidiary part of a musician’s income that sits behind income generated from live performances. While there was a disdain towards its meagre payouts, much less attention was paid to streaming. Inevitably, the total removal of live performance (bar livestreamed gigs of varying quality and pay) has left musicians without a solid basis of income. Nadine Shah, one of the spearheads of the movement to hold streaming companies to greater levels of accountability, has publicly stated she is struggling to pay rent from streaming revenue despite her cult fanbase and expansive discography.

Even the PRS for Music, responsible for the distribution of royalties for songwriters and musicians, attracted controversy for their ‘livestream licence’ that, at the very least, doubled the percentage of revenue taken by the PRS from in-person live performances.

Nadine Shah

On Spotify there does need to be a reflexive approach. For the service it offers and the prices that it charges, Spotify is a music lover’s dream. The consumer is given access to a gargantuan library of music that provides opportunities and access to education, nostalgia and new sounds. It feels personable – Spotify Wrapped gives you your listening habits to share online and compete with others, while playlists are tailored to your taste and stylistic interests in your very own Discover Weekly and Release Radar collections.

Nonetheless, many have noted that Spotify’s success comes less from devoted music nerds (once you leave this bubble, it becomes apparent how few care about your delight at my bloody valentine’s albums finally being uploaded to the service) and more to catering moods and emotions. Journalist Liz Pelly describes Spotify as a “background” presence in most people’s day-to-day existence.

When a student is cramming an essay, for example, they will choose music that suits a specific state of determined urgency. If they have managed their time well, they may be writing the essay to a more relaxed sonic accompaniment. Spotify will then continuously recommend artists and styles based on their listening trends which feeds that specific mood.

The most common moods that come out of this, such as “chill” and “study”, are then targeted by advertisers who seek as large an audience as possible, and Spotify are able to sell slots to the highest bidders. Spotify not only personalises its own efforts to expand your taste through the aforementioned playlists, but perpetuates listening habits that generate maximum revenue too.

As a result, Pelly calls Spotify a platform that exercises “mood-boosterism”, which brings together a consumer-shaped and marketed landscape for both listening habits and, most importantly, mass advertising.

The model has certainly paid off. Daniel Ek currently holds a 9% share in Spotify (which is currently valued at approximately $67bn) and has a net worth of $4.3bn. Despite a business model that delivers more consistent losses, the stream of money that goes in and out of Spotify seems never ending. As a result, he has promised a “compelling offer” for Arsenal’s current owners and seems intent on pursuing this purchase of one of the UK’s most renowned football clubs.

And while artists have brought their concerns of streaming companies’ power and fear for the sustenance of the music scene to government earlier this year, a new form of income generation has been quietly deployed by Spotify in the wake of Ek’s plans. It came in the most simple of forms – a £1 increase in monthly price for all subscription fees bar the family deal, which has jumped up by £2.

It’s one of the more comedically serendipitous moves seen by a company and business model that has been under increasingly intense scrutiny over the last year. Had this been announced alongside a new model that rewarded artists for their craft and reduced the exploitative nature of Spotify’s service, the price increase would have been more than understandable. But this is the move of a business owner looking to spread his influence across multiple industries for maximum reward.

This is not to call into question Ek’s fandom or emotional commitment to Arsenal for a second. There may be a genuinely heartfelt motivation in owning Arsenal, but it’s of little importance to artists. Flippancy is what springs to mind with the events that have unfolded, both to the subscribers to Spotify and, most importantly, to artists who have fought and continue to fight for fair payment for their work.

Fans protest the European Super League

Unfortunately, outside of never-endingly unimpressive promotional singles for international tournaments, the world of football and music rarely overlap. Say to a devoted football fan, deprived of stadium access for nearly eighteen months, that Ek’s desired purchase of Arsenal is coming at the cost of Spotify subscribers and musicians, they probably wouldn’t linger on the thought for too long. Tell a passionate music fan that Arsenal could become a club that’s more in touch with its fans, they’d probably be even less interested and immediately return the headphones to their ears.

The parallels between the monopolistic control over music and football are unavoidable, though, and this is where a blurred sense of relatability begins to emerge. To make progress, artists basically have to be on streaming services – they are unbelievable mechanisms of exposure, access and public attention for the work of musicians. But being beholden to these services deprives a substantial amount of autonomy for musicians.

For football, the ESL saw a near total demolition of collectivism within the larger clubs (though to say collectivism was thriving before the ESL would be laughable) at the expense of the economic desires of the club’s already moneyed owners.

Daniel Ek has commenced a cultural coming-together of two industries whose interactions have only ever equated to a passing glance, and as such, could bring upon himself a inescapable level of accountability. The Arsenal fans will be easier to please, the musicians will not.

Increases in subscription fees without equivalent reward for artists during the potential purchase of a football club is bound to only elevate the levels of anger and distrust leading musicians have towards Spotify. Plus, in the absence of an active live scene or reliable physical sales market, there seems to be little alternatives to streaming for artists trying to establish and maintain a source constant income.

Only a reformed model of payment and subscription will ease the friction between the two parties. It seems that a small increase in subscription for a greater payment of artists would be agreeable for fans too. However, this seems far from arriving – Spotify representatives have told government ministers that they are “open to consideration” for new models without any sign of intent to implement them.

Music, particularly outside of the mainstream, therefore hangs worryingly in the balance. It will take an enormous effort to mobilise the same momentum and attention for the plight of artists’ similar to that witnessed at the turn of the year. With the live scene crawling back into life, it may be even more difficult to attract empathy from the public. For now, musicians will have to continue the fight for every penny they earn, but with such a reliance on Spotify and other streaming companies for exposure, it may never cease.



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