The Ethics of Paying for Spotify

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Image by Lizzy Acker

In the past few months, I’ve been wrestling with a gravely serious moral quandary: should I pay for Spotify, the music-streaming service, or just listen to the ads?

One reason I characterize my indecision as a “moral” problem is that I feel a personal objection to the idea of paying for something so it will cease to annoy me. The commercials on Spotify are really, really annoying, and sometimes even objectionable. My theory is the ads are chosen specifically to get you to pay for the service in order to avoid them, rather than to allow you to sit through them if you choose. I find Flo the Progressive Insurance lady as charming as the next person, but she raps in one commercial. In another she does a robot voice. It’s pretty painful. Another ad is for one of those services that gives confused young men tips on how to “seduce” women, the kind of thing that used to only be advertised in the back of Playboy because it was so embarrassing and obnoxious. Spotify is helping pick-up artist culture--which is often amoral, misogynistic and tasteless--move into the public forum towards acceptance. Other ads I’ve heard on Spotify have been similarly “geared towards men” and pretty much equally offensive.

This kind of rationalization of cheapness by turning it into a moral stand is one of several personality traits I’ve noticed myself developing lately which I would characterize as “dad-like”: if not like my own father, then like many dads, despite that I don’t have kids. Another such trait is getting big into succulents, and pointing out cool-looking ones I see in people’s front yards, despite being fully aware the person walking with me doesn’t care all that much.

Or maybe it’s not dad-like—maybe it’s more like I’m spoiled about ads because I grew up on the internet. I don’t bat an eye if an ad pops up in my face, but having to sit through one makes me squirm.

Either way, there’s a second, probably more significant reason I’m hesitant to pay for Spotify: Sean Parker, a major force behind Spotify and the guy who makes most of the money, is not that great (understatement).


Parker does things like send out staggeringly smug press releases about the kind of parties he has. You might have already read about how he had a Lord of the Rings-themed wedding in Big Sur, for which he constructed an artificial pond and stone bridge among the redwoods without implementing erosion control measures and without permission. Or about how he then wrote an over-9,000 word screed whining about his privacy. In a later letter, he at least pointed out a legal problem that made it hard for him to get the permits he should have had, but in this same letter he smarmily referred to the redwood forests as “God’s cathedral,” and defended his wedding as having “no ice statues.”

Jeffrey L. Seglin is a syndicated ethics columnist and the author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit, and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business. He is also my godfather. I sent him a Facebook message about my Spotify dilemma. I put gas in my car, I told him, so I know I’m supporting much worse things on a daily basis than pomposity and hypocrisy, but is it important to avoid supporting an entrepreneur you find personally repugnant? Conversely, is it important for business people not to make of themselves antagonistic celebrities?

Seglin told me that if I find Parker’s values so repugnant, the ethical thing would be to boycott his products, but that most people are able to “compartmentalize and see the value of a product as separate from the values of the founder.” He continued: “I’m guessing there would be few products left if we avoided them because of some repugnant aspect of their founders’/CEOs’ lives. Steve Jobs was apparently no prince. Henry Ford was apparently anti-Semitic… Madonna speaks with a fake British accent from time to time.”

What matters, Seglin pointed out, is that we’re honest with ourselves. He likened it to the following joke from Annie Hall, another excellent product from a dude with a questionable personal history:

We all need the eggs, but it’s still important to stay vigilant and assess the characters of the people selling them. So in that spirit, I’ll be signing up for Spotify Premium before I finish writing this article. Whether Parker puts that money towards a bottle of the kind of wine I will never even be able to imagine the taste of, or towards physically shaping the natural world to more closely resemble the one depicted in his beloved Hobbit books, I hope he enjoys it. And I’ll at least be happy that the next five months’ worth of the money I’ll be sending him will have come from writing an article in which I discussed in detail how pretentious he is.

I’m okay with spending the money, but if you want to be a true dad, this website lists programs you can download to automatically mute the ads on Spotify.