Sounds Interesting

What do Band Aid 30 and Taylor Swift tell us about Spotify?

The original 1984 Band Aid.

Two stories in the news this week are more closely-linked than you might have thought. First, Taylor Swift has pulled her entire catalogue from free music streaming service, Spotify, and second, the white hats of Band Aid 30 have once again saddled up, this time to raise money to treat Ebola.

Taylor Swift’s motivation is obvious enough: rightly or wrongly (and I think rightly) Swift believes that Spotify doesn’t pay her as much money as her music is worth. Nor is this the first time that Swift has fallen out with the siren of streaming. Swift’s Red album had a delayed release on Spotify that came months after it was available in paid-for formats.

So what has this got to do with Band Aid 30? The venerable Geldof juggernaut is now on sale, but again will not be on Spotify until January: if you want to listen to it you either need to get lucky with the radio or cough up a few cents that will be used to stop people dying.

This has two implications. First, until now, it has been possible to dismiss Swift, Radiohead, and other opter-outers as whinging megastars who want a spare set of gold-plated tires for their private jets. But there is no way that Band Aid’s similar actions can be dismissed as corporate avarice. Put simply, even when they are not acting in commercial self-interest, pop stars really don’t think that Spotify income equates to the market value of their work.

Second, both Swift and Band Aid are on the cutting edge of music marketing, and highlight a new model whereby consumers pay for immediate access and can then get the music without paying only some months later. This has been presented as savvy business practice, and is novel for the music industry, but again highlights how slow the latter has been in adapting to the digital revolution.

For at least my entire life, Hollywood has made you pay A$20 to watch a new release in the cinema, but only let you watch it at home without paying several months or years later. Swift and Band Aid’s business savvy novelty parallels standard movie practice for at least the past 40 years.

While we’re on this subject, the Band Aid release has been subjected to the usual cynicism. While criticism levelled at pop star ego is always fine by me, a second gripe is that Band Aid is ineffective. It is interesting that the same criticism is rarely levelled at other less glitzy charities, but nonetheless I couldn’t resist this opportunity to point out that there is direct evidence that music really can rock the world, and not just by raising money.

Economics research published in the 1990s showed that the amount of pessimistic rumination in the lyrics of hit songs could predict upturns and downturns in consumer confidence and Gross Domestic Product.

Other work has shown that the frequency with which country is played on the radio can predict changes in the suicide rate. So if music can influence people’s beliefs concerning the economy and suicide, it is clearly going to impact upon a “pushing at an open door issue” such as saving lives.

So be nice to Taylor Swift: what she is doing is sensible, even if it isn’t terribly innovative. And be very nice to Band Aid as they’re simply reflecting the fact that Spotify income won’t save many lives, even though conventional sales of the song might well.