I’m Listening To Music On Spotify And I’m Feeling Quite Guilty About It

I think just about everybody who reads Riverside Green is aware that I majored in Music in school—more specifically, I majored in Jazz Performance. When I was in school, the best textbooks I had were actually compact discs. I scrimped and saved from my part-time job to buy used CDs from “Used Kids Records” on High Street for anywhere from $5-7 apiece—new CDs were out of the question, financially. It was thanks to Used Kids that I learned about off-the-radar saxophonists like Mark Turner, Teodross Avery, Wessell Anderson, and Tim Warfield. I digested their musical vocabulary, transcribed their solos, and regurgitated my learnings through the bell of my horn.

I’ve spent hundreds and thousands of hours practicing the saxophone, writing music, and performing on stages throughout North America and Europe. I’ve been blessed to share stages with some of the biggest names in music. And, for several years, playing the brass bagpipes was how I (barely) paid the bills.

Which is why I’m incredibly conflicted every time that I open up my Spotify app.


For consumers of music, music streaming is the best thing that’s ever happened. I pay $9.99 a month for unlimited streaming of all of Spotify’s catalog, and for five extra bucks I can share it with five members of my family (my son has developed a bizarre affinity for Weird Al Yankovic). That’s insane. I often think about how easy it would be to be a music student today—an entire world of music, easily and readily accessible in the palm of my hand. I studied and memorized the solos from Kenny Garrett’s Songbook for three months—not because I was obsessed with it (which, admittedly, I was), but because that was the only music I could afford. I had to buy it new because nobody was stupid enough to sell it back, so I was especially broke that month.

Now? I can go to Spotify and listen to everything that Kenny Garrett has ever recorded. I can carry it in my pocket and I can listen to it in my headphones, on a portable bluetooth speaker, or in my car. Everybody wins.

Well, everybody except the musician who’s creating it.

In fact, this wild, wonderful world where anybody can create anything and distribute it himself has had a terrible, dark side ever since the advent of Napster. In a world where art is free, why would anybody pay for art? I know that I’m ripping musicians off by using Spotify. I applaud Taylor Swift for removing her music from streaming services. I am genuinely pissed off that UMG gave Spotify the rights to use Prince’s music, in direct opposition to the artist’s wishes (and according to a court order)—but, of course, I started listening to Purple Rain immediately.

The mercurial saxophonist, David Liebman, posted this image of a check he got for a month’s royalties from Spotify on his Facebook page recently. Forty-three cents for a life’s worth of practice, study, sweat, and inspiration. That personally offends me. But not enough to stop using the service. And if I, a former musician who depended on the consumption of my music to pay my bills, can’t be morally offended enough to stop using the service, then what hope do we have that anybody else will be?

It’s incredibly appropriate that one of the most popular sharing services is called Pandora, because I’m pretty sure that this box of virtually free music on demand is one that we’ll never be able to close. And I can’t see how it’s good for anybody who wants to make a living creating new, courageous forms of music. Sure, we can all create an instant audience for our music now, but what good is having an audience if that audience is full of freeloaders?

26 Replies to “I’m Listening To Music On Spotify And I’m Feeling Quite Guilty About It”

  1. Duong Nguyen

    Did musicians (especially jazz musicians with little radio play) really ever make much money from albums or royalties though? How many even recouped recording costs?

    Isn’t touring where the “money” is at and always been for these guys?

    • silentsod

      I also understood that royalties were generally very low and touring is what provided decent income (provided you are popular enough for either to garner a decent audience).

  2. WheeTwelve

    Personally, I use the streaming services to discover new things, and then buy CDs of the stuff I like. Not saying everyone should do this, just that this is what I do. There are three main reason why I do this:

    1. Music quality
    2. Music doesn’t change
    3. Music doesn’t go away

    By (2) and (3) I mean the streaming service doesn’t decide to change the version of the song I like. Or pulls it altogether, due to some legal dispute. Or goes out of business, and I can no longer access my digital on-line purchases.
    No thanks. Storage is criminally cheap these days, so I’ll keep a lossless copy, and enjoy it on my own terms.

    Now, to the dark side of the coin. Music industry isn’t entirely innocent in what happened. Music industry has over the years perfected the process of bending the customers over the barrel. I’m not saying the musicians themselves are to blame for this, though some probably had a hand in it. Nor am I trying to claim that this is endemic only to the music industry. But it did happen. They were financially raping the customers, and with the rise of various technologies, the customers did strike back. Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? Perhaps. Streaming services rose out of the music industry capitulating to the technological onslaught they ignored and resisted for too long. Musicians, rightly or wrongly, suffer as a consequence.

    Ultimately, I think this “strike back” hurts the “small fish” the most. Big Name musicians won’t feel the impact that much. Oh, they’ll have to get every *other* new Ferrari, and perhaps hold off on that condo in Dubai for another year. But lesser-known musicians will struggle *a lot*, while working as hard or harder, and being just as, or even more talented.

    It is entirely possible that the pendulum will swing back in favor of the music industry at some point in the future, probably because of some new technology making an appearance, making it possible to secure digital things, and control access to them. And if/when it does, streaming services will either grossly raise prices, or go away entirely. And if music industry isn’t smart about it, they will once again try to financially rape their customers. If they do, sometime in yet more distant futures, the customers will strike back again…

  3. Frank Galvin

    You’re not ripping them off. In all actuality, had Spotify, Pandora et al not been formed, then piracy would be the main source of distribution, and copyright infringement damages would be impossible to recover.

    With paying customers, a plaintiff’s class action attorney can compel production of revenue, tracks played etc, so they’ll at least have some sense of actual damages. What’s really shitty is that Spotify’s business model is forcing a class action settlement. They’ve raised one billion in debt financing and are valued at 8.6 billion. The copyright / mechanical royalty claims, if proven, and in total were awarded at trial, then they’re bankrupt, and no one gets anything. However, with that much money raised in debt financing, its likely that at some point various class actions against them will be consolidated and they’ll enter into a master class settlement agreement. Artists will get something, as opposed to nothing. In the meantime, Spotify can afford to buy artists off.

    Something that I’ll be keeping an eye on.

  4. Dirty Dingus McGee

    I still buy music, I just do it from iTunes now( no idea what the artist’s cut is). And how I find some of it, is bouncing around YouTube. I recently caught The Dead South (Canadian bluegrass style band) that popped up in the sidebar. Listened to a few tunes, liked them, so bought them off iTunes. Same way I “found” Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats(not sure WHAT genre they would be considered).
    I did try Pandora 3-4 years ago. What I didn’t care for was unless you knew the artist’s name, and made it a “channel”, it was rare to hear the lesser known ones. I haven’t logged in in a couple years so maybe it’s better now.

    • Lizzie McGuire

      If you like Nate Rateliff and the Night Sweats, you MUST see them live. They were freaking amazing at Red Rocks…..I think they’re touring again this year.

      • Dirty Dingus McGee

        I’ll keep an eye out for them. Pretty good chance they will be around my area.

        And how can you not tap your toe to this?

        • Lizzie McGuire

          Right?!?!? I love it. They have such a unique sound and they’re totally authentic – a rare feat nowadays.

        • nightfly

          That is FANTASTIC. The video cracks me up too. And at the end, one of the preview panels was, indeed, The Dead South, who were also very good. I’ve come late to bluegrass – ironically, it was from seeing a CD of instrumental bluegrass at The Cracker Barrel and buying it.

          • Dirty Dingus McGee

            If you like bluegrass and haven’t heard of them yet, I’ll recommend a band called Iron Horse. They cover metal, pop, etc as bluegrass. They covered Metallica’s Fade to Black, called it Fade to Bluegrass and it’s awesome.
            I won’t eat up more of Jacks memory/storage here by posting another link, but you can find them pretty easy on YouTube. You might also check out Hayseed Dixie and The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band.

  5. PaulyG

    A few random thoughts:

    I look at Spotify as music discovery/radio. In reality, small-time musicians did not make much money from records even in the golden age of recorded music (1965-1990).

    Times have changed. Everyone in my era, when we went to college (late 70’s/early 80’s) brought a stereo with us. My millennial daughters listen on headphones. Recorded music was/is entertainment to us, now it is much more like a background mood enhancer. Video games, etc. have made music less central to the millennial generation.

    My solution is to support musicians by seeing live music! We go to our local music clubs frequently. There is plenty of talent at the smaller venues and it is a more personal and experience versus attending some mega concert at Madison Sq Garden or the Meadowlands.

    If you enjoy the performance, buy the CD or LP at the merch booth to cut out the middlemen.


  6. niclas

    I stream music on average a couple of hours per day, but have thousands worth of records and still buy new ones. Still, a lot of it is music that isn’t available on streaming services. Even if i own the physical record, in most cases it’s still easier to just stream it if it’s available. Saves me from ripping the records to my computer, and I still have the physical disk for when i want to sit down and just concentrate on listening with no distractions. But if it isn’t available for streaming, chances are I just won’t listen to it very often even though I have already paid money for the actual record; were it available for streaming I would continue paying the artist something even after the initial purchase of the record. Streaming services have also lead me to purchase records from artists I would otherwise never have heard about, so because of streaming they get the money from the physical media and the streaming.

  7. Jim Zeigler

    Though I’m not a musician, I cancelled my Spotify subscription earlier this year partly for the reasons you mention. Plus, it irked me that after three years and $360+tax spent, I didn’t actually own anything – no shitty jewel cases, no half-assed album art, nothing. Since the cancellation, I’ve been buying a couple used albums a month for about the same price.

    It was a damn good decision. Spotify had created some awful ADHD-esque listening habits. I had become an album-hopper, and rarely became engrossed in a concept or “vibe” like my pre-streaming self. I’ve recently relistened to a couple albums (most recent Radiohead album and Drive-By Truckers’ Dirty South) and they were noticeably more enjoyable.

  8. -Nate

    Interesting concept .
    I agree that Musicians should be compensated, I usually buy used CD’s because I can’t afford new ones .
    ? anyone here remember when CD’s were not quite available yet and they lied and told us CD’s would be less than 1/4 the price of records because they’re so cheap to manufacture ? .
    That sure happened, didn’t it ? .
    Pandora bought up RDO.com and closed them down, to cowardly to deal with the competition even though they didn’t offer much of the same music Pandora did .

  9. rich trout

    Sad, but back in 1826- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power-loom_riots-they thought it was unfair to have looms that replaced weavers and their skills. Robots have displaced many auto workers – itunes and spotify have made my 3000 cds (about $4500) worth about $30. Technology displaces many skilled workers and their incomes. But it has it’s advantages, cellphones under $50-(1st one $3995.00) Cars with more computing power than the lunar lander

  10. Mike

    I think it’s a fair price. A year of one of these subscription services is $120. For about 10 years before I switched to Apple Music, I was spending less than $120 per year on average on CDs and iTunes. Most people probably spend less. The age when I bought a CD a week had long passed.

  11. Don Curton

    Try Amazon Prime. About the same cost ($99 per year). The selection of “free” music changes over time, some songs get yanked and new ones get added. However, even when you select the free/prime music to your device, you have the option of also paying for it if you’d like. So you get the benefit of trying and listening to lots of stuff and can still go back and pay for it individually if you want to support the artist (and every link in the chain between your smart phone and the guy actually performing).

    But I also agree with Mike’s point – prior to Amazon I spent almost nothing on music. I bought albums way back, then recorded those to cassette tape, then bought the exact same albums on CD, then spent an inordinate amount of time trying to transfer those to my computer and then my iPod, and then finally gave up and just listened to he motor hum on my drive to work. With Amazon, I’m at least occasionally purchasing new stuff whereas before I bought nothing.

  12. rich trout

    It goes both ways, I’ve spent $15 for a CD or album many times and the only song on it I liked or listened to was the song on the radio I heard. I replaced all my albums with the same CD’s buying the artists music twice. Sometimes 3 times because I bought the remastered disk. I’ve bought Greatest Hits albums and CD’s and they didn’t have a couple of their hits on them because the rights belonged to another company.

  13. Orenwolf

    There’s definitely a sea change in the music industry. What I find amazing now is that the upcoming generation is already getting all of their music from places like youtube. This has created a cottage industry of musicians who derive all (or nearly all) of their revenue from places like Youtube instead of the more traditional media formats.

    It makes sense, with fewer and fewer people watching TV or listening to the Radio, video streaming sites represent the next largest market of interactive audiences. Very few of these folks are getting rich, but I personally know three different artists who have quit their “day jobs” and are now actual, for real, full-time musicians getting their revenue from 1) youtube, and 2) Patreon.

    I think we may be seeing the end of the mega-superstar, but the creation of a reasonable income from just doing what you love, interactively, with fans. Given how few musicians ever “make it” to begin with, this is probably a net positive for most, since t-shirt and album sales aren’t going to allow your neighbourhood band to quit their day jobs and play music fulltime anyway (and haven’t for many years now).

  14. 1A

    “For consumers of music, music streaming is the best thing that’s ever happened.”

    I thought about this just last night. I was watching Forensic Files and they mentioned how the killer had “Just.Downloaded.This.Song.” (*dramatic voice*).

    That brought back memories of having to actually download a song just to listen to it (go back even further in the memory bank and remember the time it took, maybe 10 minutes per song).

  15. Jodine

    For this exact reason is why we purchase vinyl if they have records pressed. Or at least merchandise.

    I totally see the point you’re making and I personally don’t know many artists who wouldn’t dream of being able to make their living off doing the things that they love. At the same time, all of the talented musicians that I know could care less about making money (but are grateful for it) as long as they are ABLE to create art and most importantly throw it out to the world to share. I also know many artists who want absolutely nothing to do with making a living off of doing what they love.

    But who am I to say anything? I’m just a freeloader with nearly 100k in student loan debt from liberal arts school.

  16. DirtRoads

    My first album was an 8 track — Master of Reality. Bought tons of albums over the years. Ex-wives have all of them now, although I’d still like to get back that Dark Side of the Moon 20th anniversary copy. *shrug* I’ve done clever repairs on 8 tracks like the angled tin foil and fishmouth scotch tape… it’s all good.

    Ripping off musicians happened in the vinyl days, folks. I used to listen patiently at the radio for a song I wanted, cassette player at the ready, and hit records just as they started the song. Sometimes the damned DJ would talk at the beginning or end of the song, but you still had something to take along in your car. That is, if you had one of those new cassette player machines.

    I was a Limewire freak while it was still going. I was exposed to more music than I could ever imagine. Then I went to iTunes to buy a decent copy, or at least a file without a virus in it, or faked into a porn video. I had three months of music on my iPod.

    I’ve bought a lot of old stuff to replace my lost vinyl. Old Zappa is still on iTunes, and no scratches or pops on the tracks, yeah! And so on.. so it’s not all bad.

    As a musician of sorts who plays guitar, keyboards, tenor sax and lead vocals, I only ever made money playing on front of actual people. I gave away my CDs. I buy CDs from musicians at airports and love to watch live music, or at least used to.

    Life is good, always changing. We can lament the goodle days (a phrase I ripped off from Johnny Hartford for you true bluegrass aficionados) but all in all, what we have now is all we have.


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