On Spotify, File-Sharing & Incomplete Statistics

image from guest post by Steve Lawson first appeared on New Music Strategies. Lawson is a musician, teacher and writer. His music and writing can be found at

Since Spotify finally launched in the US, the discussion has reignited about what the benefits of it are for musicians.

One recent conversation has involved people quoting diametrically opposite statistics about the influence of Spotify on file-sharing in Sweden. Some people quoting a stat that says file-sharing has dropped as Spotify has rolled out, and others saying that there’s more file sharing with Spotify…

The problem with both statistics is that there’s no binary relationship between Spotify and file-sharing, and none of the articles I’ve seen writing about it have made any attempt to differentiate between different media being torrented, or indeed whether what’s been measured is number of unique users, number of files or quantity of traffic. All of which can be interpreted in myriad ways.

I have also yet to see a breakdown of just whose music is being played on Spotify vs those artists whose torrent traffic has shifted, or the impact that either has had on music sales – digital or physical – which would also need to be put alongside all the other influences on those statistics too.

As an example, my own Spotify statements via CDBaby have thus far reported 4583 plays and paid me a grand total of $11.38, including precisely zero downloads via their own store – so in terms of raw financial return, 2 people torrenting my stuff and deciding to buy a CD or download, and/or go to a show would beat Spotify hands down.

But Spotify, we’re told, is all about discovery – people find you there and may then go and buy your stuff elsewhere. Be heard. That’s the mantra. But if it doesn’t pay, and the artist has no control over the biography that’s on their artist page there, or where the (one) sales link goes to (I’d happily swap all my royalties from Spotify for ever for the chance to have the ‘buy’ link go to Bandcamp instead of their ridiculous credit-based store), then wouldn’t it actually be BETTER for the artist to seed your material onto BitTorrent, to package it with a PDF that speaks directly to the people who’ve torrented it, to invite them to your own site to find out more?

The legality or otherwise of each activity is rather moot for independent artists who record their own songs (things get more complex when it’s a recording of someone else’s song), though the societal implications for activities that are against the law becoming normative are potentially far more problematic.

Spotify – like the Major labels who were granted a large share of the business in exchange for the rights to their catalogues (without – in the majority of cases – consulting their artists) – are horribly opaque with their accounting, and obfuscate any response to questioning about where the money their subscribers and advertisers pay is going. They talk in big numbers about how much is being paid out, but with no context. Thus leaving us without even the in-app statistics, let alone any way of mapping those to wider internet sales/traffic/download trends in a meaningful way.

This is the problem with statistics and the Internet – some things are very easy to map, particularly if the traffic is within a single domain, though it may still be impossible to extrapolate meaning from those raw numbers. But trying to track whether Spotify is causing people to buy – or torrent – music elsewhere is impossible to measure without doing extensive market research, which is hindered by the fact that most torrenting is against the law in most of the countries that have a vested interest in knowing this stuff. Again, to have any meaning, we’d also need to see data on the cost of the physical version, how it was packaged and what quality the torrented file was vs what was available to buy.

Which means? It’s disigenuous to pejoratively view someone torrenting a 24bit FLAC file as an alternative to buying something on iTunes without also addressing the lack of a legal file of the same quality elsewhere, as well as considering the influence that variable pricing and/or exclusively packaged beautifully design physical product may have had on their actions.

The other huge problem facing anyone trying to write authoritatively about this, as I implied earlier, is that the various lobbying agencies representing the major record labels, such as the BPI in the UK and the RIAA in the US, have thus far proved unwilling to provide any control group statistics about the broader financial situation in the traditional recording industry world. Particularly as it relates to what the majority of artists and musicians get paid. The artists themselves are often prevented from gaining access to the accounts relating to their own artistic work, so outside access is currently impossible.

What we end up with is vested interests at both ends of the spectrum using the bits of available statistics that best support their preconceived notions of good and bad, without any broader analysis of what those stats mean and why their incompleteness is significant.

So all statistical interpretation must be caveated with what’s missing and interpreted in the light of that. It’s not that incomplete stats aren’t useful. They’re just incomplete.

[photo use under Creative Commons, by Dan Dickinson on Flickr]

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  1. “the artist has no control over the biography that’s on their artist page there” True and that is exactly why I came up with the idea of linking songs on Spotify with the artist’s own website. This has already been implemented in More about this idea
    On topic. I agree with your view on statistics. But I doubt that people start torrenting music after listening to it on Spotify. I used to be a vivid illegal downloader and since I started using Spotify I only torrent music that is not available on Spotify. Could be I’m the only one….
    Another observation. Most complains about the revenue of music on streaming services come from artists who are not that successful in selling their music also. Stop wining and start making great music. First is it illegal downloading, than Spotify, how about yourself? Blaming others is easy.

  2. Hey Spotidj,
    You’re not very good at observations. Indie musicians ARE NOT complaining about not getting paid enough. Instead, they’re complaining about getting ripped off by Spotify, who also happens to be in cahoots with the big record labels.
    Spotify is simply not looking out for the indie musicians, but yet, you blame the indie musicians for that. You sound like a Republican.

  3. I agree with the article incomplete statistics are only as useful as their completion has come thus far, it could easily leave out obvious anomalies.
    With 88% of Spotify offering content provided by one of the four Major labels that 12% is shared amongst several hundreds of independent artists and/or labels, Majors also holding 18% equity between them along with minimum ad-play payment deals with Universal mean that it will probably never look up so much for indies.
    The “discover music” is the key note but you can do that with piracy without paying somebody else to reep the benefit.
    In the new area of digital I agree that filesharing needs to be embraced and with Physical still making up the majority of album sales STILL then it’s ignorant to lose sight of that.
    A problem I found is that the people who crave the physical and have to order online (due to lack of variety in stores) then have to wait 3-4 days to listen to their music. I believe they should be immediately given the files on MP3 feeding the immediate access craved by modern standards. I brought the album… why wait 3 days to listen to it? If you were downloading from iTunes and it said “3 days remaining” you’d be on the pirate sites too. Do people have the “right” to download the album is they have already brought it (morally speaking, of course it’s still illegal).
    It is always strange to hear of articles talking about how one thing or another is helping fight or actually embracing piracy. The figures provided by BPI, RIAA and other such organisations are quite opaque, and they are legislating around these figures which are either estimates or show no clear route to the clear data proving this. So how effective can legislative actions be if they are to be based on estimates assumptions and unclear facts which restrict the way people consume music in their homes?

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