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The Spotify AI Blues

We can learn a lot from Spotify, its attempts to be profitable, and the model’s incredible popularity among consumers. The corporation’s pursuit of profits will push it to explore AI-generated music, calling into question the intrinsic value of music, the labor of making music, and the role of creativity in our society. While AI could hypothetically generate novel and pleasurable pieces of art and music, a focus on whether or not it successfully does so misses the entire point of why humans engage in creative expression. Creativity is not best supported by commodities and the downward pressure on wage labor by markets, but is something we do in community with each other. Our task is finding out how we get there.

Spotify isn’t profitable

For the past ten years, Spotify’s sales pitch has been that for a small sum of money, you get access to basically any recorded music. Despite inflation, we’re still paying roughly $10 a month for access to a catalog that’s constantly growing. Most people assume Spotify, with its immense success—almost a market monopoly—is rolling in profits. Yet the company does not, and has not, returned a profit. This is attributable in large part to how royalties in music work.

Music as labor

In the 1940s, musicians organized themselves enough that they were able to go on a multi-year strike against major American record companies. Lack of a back catalog is what gave musicians such leverage in the 40s, but as the record companies’ back catalog grew, artists’ power as creators of music dwindled. Music solidified into a commodity and record companies—as the legal rights holders— sat on growing heaps of dead labor, melted into vinyl. Those record companies, which are also major equity stakeholders in Spotify, reap the majority of the windfall from Spotify’s royalty payments. In the short term, Spotify helps them cash in on their vaults; in the long term, they make a bet that Spotify will no longer need them.

Meanwhile, the advances in home recording and the disappearance of the studio as the main production infrastructure has crushed the notion of music as a source of living wage for the vast majority of music workers. What 15-30 people did in a recording studio not that long ago could now be done at your computer, with very little material difference between those who do it for fun and those who do it for a living. Musicians have become small-scale isolated artisans, working in their own workshops, producing craft commodities. Today, what sets a working musician apart from a hobbyist is all the additional labor that goes into self-promotion, releasing, and the administration of running a business, none of it related to the act of making music.

Making music is largely a creative endeavor. This creates a gap between the value of the music to a listener, its price, and what it costs to produce. The hobbyist-“professional” spectrum intensifies this: music is a category of labor that many are perceived to do for fun—the intrinsic ability to express your creativity is payment in lieu of actual financial gain. Musicians are perceived to live a utopian life, able to pursue their passion, so they gain very little sympathy as professionals. Simultaneously, digital downloads and the downward pressure on Spotify’s monthly membership cost show that listeners are reluctant to assign much monetary value to music. They opt to listen with ads, on free platforms, or pay a small monthly fee. But this doesn’t stem from inherent human greediness or laziness. Rather, it originates in a deeper belief that art isn’t something that should be commodified.

The impact on musician unions is huge. The devaluation of musical labor as outlined above has shattered the conditions that would allow for a union to be effective. Since musicians can no longer withhold their labor via a strike, a union is reduced to an advocacy group. Whether focused on corporate responsibility or government regulation, neither offers a truly viable solution.

Tension between musicians and streaming platforms

Royalties eat into Spotify’s profits. But for now it can’t stop paying them—musicians have had some wins—so Spotify wriggles its way through semantics and legal definitions of what streaming is and isn’t. On the other side, musicians, who need money to survive under capitalism, want more royalties. A focus on fair pay is one of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) major demands. One avenue to do this is by giving more money and enforcement power to Publishing Rights Organizations, the people who pay out royalties (which have their own set of problems). Another is by switching streaming payment models to the user-centric model. But that poses its own set of problems. For Spotify the answer seems easier: play fewer things that require royalties in the limited amount of time that people have for listening to music. That’s why they are pushing podcasts. That’s why they hire musicians to make royalty-free music they can squeeze into their playlists. And it’s a perfect place for auto-generated music.

In comes AI

A lot of people listen to music as background noise. They put it on while they’re working, or reading, or alone in their space. Just think of the popularity of Chill Beats playlists on YouTube. If all we need is filler it’s not inconceivable—irregardless of its artistic merits—that this music gets generated by an AI. And if Spotify can, with its vast quantities of user data and listening habits, churn out the perfect mix for you without paying any royalties, you can bet that it will. This could very well be what tips them into profitability.

Aside from the big legal and moral questions around data aggregation and extraction, environmental cost of machine learning training models, human effort laundering, and other big hang-ups for AI, it’s not obvious that listening to this kind of music is a Bad Thing. Procedurally generated music is already a thing. But the moral hang-ups around AI, creativity, and the price of music get at something deeper.

A race to the bottom

Spotify puts working musicians in direct competition with royalty-free listening options, including podcasts, fake artists, the same songs with different names and generated music. The tension faced by Spotify is that users think that the ideal streaming platform is one where everything is free for everybody. But people dedicated to expressing themselves creatively need to eat, and market logic has forced them to sell a commodity everyone deems a communal good at constantly sinking prices. If they can’t make money with their creative work, they will turn to the ever-growing side hustle, whether as mechanical turks, influencers, or uber drivers. The current system lifts up middle class or wealthy musicians, while largely leaving the poor behind.

On the other side of the wall are the atomized listeners. Music consumption lends itself to parasocial relations, where listeners feel a one-directional closeness with musicians. We listen to music in our apartments and rooms, use it to process our feelings, and express ourselves. We walk down the street listening in our earphones and put on music and the radio to fill the silence or block out capital’s constant sonic assault on our ears. TVs stay on all day, tuned to news or reality TV shows. For many, the constant noise is a way of dealing with alienation and the forced loneliness of our lives under capitalism. Built by profit motives, AI will feed this craving for connection into capital’s data-greedy belly.

Self expression, community, and mutual aid

How can we make room for ourselves psychically, spiritually, and practically to make music, and to share it with people? How can a trombonist, for example, afford to play their trombone (alone or with friends)1? Any time that we make space in our lives for these immensely fulfilling creative moments, often spent in community with others (whether as listeners or as co-creators), we’re taking away time from the work of surviving under capitalism. Music is a human interconnection. It’s relational and a way of creating community. Most people subconsciously understand that creativity and commodity production stand in opposition to each other. There is no inherent quality in music beyond what it means in our relationships with other people and our relationships with ourselves. There is nothing intrinsically valuable in our work as artists beyond that we are human beings and we made something. While current AI makes everything crumble into the middle it is not inconceivable that AI could create perfectly soothing, pleasurable, and novel sounds. But virtuosity and novelty are values of an art system based on commodity production, exceptionalism, capitalism, and hierarchy. We prefer to imagine a world where art is made to express ourselves, to relate with each other, to imagine better worlds, to heal, and supported by each other. This is a matter of mutual aid.

Further Reading

  1. What’s the difference between a trombonist and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four.