On March 15, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers staged a day of action at Spotify headquarters around the world, demanding that the streaming giant pay artists a penny per stream. The current rate is estimated at $0.0038 per play. (Nastia Voynovskaya)
The pandemic has pushed millions of people into poverty while billionaires have only gotten richer, and as a result, gig workers are organizing. That includes independent musicians, many of whom have begun to see themselves as a labor force capable of advocating for better pay.
The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) is an advocacy group that came together during the coronavirus pandemic. Since October, they’ve been running a Justice at Spotify campaign that asks the Swedish streaming giant to increase its pay rate to a penny per stream.
Over 27,500 musicians have signed UMAW’s campaign. And on March 15, they protested at 31 Spotify headquarters around the world, including San Francisco. On a sidewalk in the Financial District, about a dozen demonstrators gathered with signs, tambourines and cow bells, chanting in reference to Spotify’s CEO, “Daniel Ek, where’s my check?”
While a penny per play may not sound like a lot, it’s a significant step up from Spotify’s estimated rate of $0.0038 per stream. To give a clearer picture, NPR calculated that for an artist to earn the equivalent of $15 an hour at a full-time job, they would have to garner 657,895 Spotify streams per month—a figure that’s only attainable to those with considerable star power, and still isn’t a living wage in most major cities. (Spotify hasn’t publicly released its rates, and some artists have reported payments even lower than the commonly held $0.0038 estimate.)
Meanwhile, streaming has become a billion dollar business. Spotify boasts 345 million subscribers worldwide, by far outpacing competitors such as Apple Music and Tidal, and in the most recent quarter its advertising revenue was up 29% from the previous year.
“We’re the musicians, we power the platform and we should be the ones who are compensated,” said Sam Regan of the band Baseball Gregg, who drove to San Francisco from Stockton to attend the action.
Over a loudspeaker, Regan read aloud UMAW’s demands, which include greater transparency about Spotify’s deals with record labels, and an end to what the activists call a practice of “payola” for visibility on the platform. (Recently, Spotify announced a new deal where artists could opt for greater visibility in its algorithm in exchange for lower pay.) UMAW also wants more transparency about Spotify’s payment structures, and for Spotify to drop its court appeal to lower songwriters’ royalties, which activists say is an example of the company working against artists. Spotify did not return KQED’s request for comment.
“There is money in streaming, and it’s not going mostly to musicians,” said singer-songwriter Julia Holter, an organizer of UMAW’s Los Angeles rally, in a Zoom interview last week. “Especially in the U.S., ‘Is art really work?’ is a question we have to deal with all the time. The point is, there’s someone making money.”
Holter pointed to a recent U.K. survey from a similar campaign called #BrokenRecord that showed that half of respondents would pay more for streaming services if they knew the money was going directly to artists. Her fellow organizer, Gracie Malley of the San Francisco protest, sees a similar trend in the United States with the popularity of Bandcamp Fridays, where the Oakland-based music platform (which focuses on album sales, not streaming) waives its share of revenue once a month.
“Maybe that’s planting a seed in people’s heads—I feel good giving my money to this artist,” Malley said. “Maybe I’ll think twice about streaming them on Spotify or maybe using Spotify in general.”
The organizers of UMAW see their Justice at Spotify campaign as only the beginning. They also have subcommittees that advocate for artists in live music and record label relations, and hope to harness the power of collective bargaining in a highly individualistic field.
“We don’t have a complaint department, and that’s a problem. Unionization is the only way,” said New York UMAW organizer Marshall Moran, a musician, educator and engineer.
“Like minimum wage, fighting for a penny per stream is a drop in the bucket for what we really need,” he continued. “We’re just trying to let everybody know—there’s a lot of people out there who are scared. Everybody is really terrified right now if you’re in music. And we want them to know they have solidarity. They have a place we can come and we’re trying to fight for them.”
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