”Written byHannah Mitchell
“Humans are intrinsically artistic creatures. Art weaves itself into most facets of our existence”
Humans are intrinsically artistic creatures. Art weaves itself into most facets of our existence – we use mathematical rigidity to create captivating patterns; we understand our place in the universe through written word and philosophical musings. Humans search the labyrinth of nature through structured equations and bring together cultures and contrasts through music.
All we do is art. All we do is inherently linked to self-expression: if not just for us as individuals, but for the collective knowledge of the human race. And then – just like that – in barges late-stage capitalism, which decides (quite resolutely, might I add) that all our expression is worth is the cash it can bring in. Oh, hello Spotify!
Christmas, 2009. My sister had just gotten the new Taylor Swift album, Fearless. There was nothing quite like cracking open the hard plastic shell to reveal that gleaming CD in all its glory, covered by the glossy folder that held all the lyrical secrets to the incoming masterpiece. We would thumb through that booklet till it was stained by coffee mug rings and puppy nibbles; play the album on repeat and pick up the disc with grubby fingers until it was scratched beyond repair. It didn’t matter, though – it was treasured. It was our late-millennial-early-gen-Z venture into appreciating the work that had been invested in Taylor’s creative expression. Now that CDs have joined their elder siblings in the defunct technology pile, and the era of streaming music has begun, I wonder how much we appreciate the effort that creating art takes. Especially when our lovely friend Spotify – and its equally guilty competitors – can provide music at the touch of a button, for less monthly than two artisanal gin and tonics at a Cape Town hotspot.
At the end of the day, their priority is not making sure you discover a lo-fi musician who they have great hopes for.
I’m not going to be all doom and gloom here. I am in awe of technology – I study it for goodness sake, and I have first-hand experience of how a line of code, or a new app is a form of creative expression itself. But the problem comes in when a multinational megacorporation like Spotify plays the insidious game of being the innocent face of the open internet. A concept that sees the exponential rise of technology as being the way to break down the barriers of access to capital should not be used by a couple of billionaires cosplaying as creatives. The Spotify co founder and CEO, Daniel Ek, has never created a piece of music, but his $2,900,000,000 net worth is built on it.
Spotify has been using their year in review – a concept they stole from an uncredited intern, by the way – to appear as your music nerd best friend with an endless knowledge of obscure genres and subgenres. But they’re not. At the end of the day, their priority is not making sure you discover a lo-fi musician who they have great hopes for. The recent Joe Rogan controversy is nothing but a symptom in the disease of late-stage capitalism swallowing up and spitting out creatives for the sake of more cash to line someone’s pocket. Just like a Looney Toons character with dollar signs in their eyes, Spotify decided that the money from a rather repetitive podcast was worth incomparably more than the industry-changing musical legacies of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and other creatives who were gladly kicked to the curb in favour of something less meaningful than these legacies.
It’s hard to find a positive here, but for the sake of being fair, I will admit that the industry has become more open since the rise of streaming. It’s a consumer’s dream – you open one simple little app and get to listen to both Grimes and Beethoven with just a tap of your screen. But what do artists get from this? From Spotify at least, you’ll get between $0.003 and $0.005 per stream (that’s about R0.079 by the way), that still needs to be split between all those involved in creating the music. Oh, don’t worry though – Spotify is quite generous – you don’t have to pay to upload your music, and they “don’t take commission or charge any fees, no matter how frequently you release music.” How kind!
There are small, independent festivals, and larger ones that have stuck to their roots and South Africa has a chance to lead the way globally, post-COVID, in finding a creative tension between what covers the costs and what rocks. There are hazards (even ‘authenticity’ can become branded over time) but we have the space, the enthusiasm and the experience. And it’s worth remembering the flip side of the selling out algorithm; just as edgy and brilliant music scenes usually end up selling out, so do new edgy and brilliant music scenes kept appearing. That’s also the natural law. Music is, at its finest, mysterious and irrepressible, capable of breaking down barriers and opening people’s hearts in a unique way. However depressing it might be to hear a song that a few years ago seemed to sum up your whole soul playing in a shopping mall elevator, the unique tensions and madness of any generation usually burst forth into song. The trick is to be there when it happens.
Music is, at its finest, mysterious and irrepressible, capable of breaking down barriers and opening people’s hearts in a unique way.
It’s a debate that will ultimately continue to rage – an indication of how the pandemic has transformed not just the music industry, but the world’s perception of labour value. Whether or not industry heavyweights such as Taylor Swift weigh in on the discussion is yet to be seen. But as consumers, it is our responsibility to be aware of our influence in directing conversations. If Spotify is as money driven as they’ve shown themselves to be, those of us paying for their platform might have more power than we think.