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Reading 29 January 2018

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My problem with Spotify – even though I’m a subscriber

It’s a miracle of the age, but Spotify’s suspect ‘playlists’, shaky finances and low pay are bad for music fans and creators alike

Mon 29 Jan 2018 06.00 GMT Last modified on Mon 29 Jan 2018 10.00 GMT

In the last 20 or so years of technological revolution, has any artform been as transformed as music? Film and literature may still be adjusting to new platforms and business ideas, but they cling to the same basic rules. Art and theatre seem largely unchanged. As Netflix and Amazon Prime embed themselves in our lives, even TV is managing to hold on. But, though songs still form the soundtrack to our lives, everything that surrounds them has changed beyond recognition.

Only a generation ago, we all had to pay to own music; now, it is either free, or available in abundance in return for paltry subscription fees. The ubiquitous chatter of headphone noise attests to how many of us drink in a great ocean of sound, while a lot of the people who create it wonder how on earth they can make a living. Such, perhaps, is the price of the fulfilment of a simple wish. As a high-ranking tech executive once put it: “people just want to have access to all of the world’s music”, and for good and ill, we are now living with the consequences.

That remark was uttered by Daniel Ek, the co-founder of Spotify, the streaming service launched 10 years ago from Sweden, and now used by an estimated 140 million people worldwide. In the next few months, shares in the company will be traded for the first time – and despite the fact that it has yet to turn a profit, its value is put as high as $19bn.

Music industry insiders now talk about artists nipping and tucking their music according to the playlists’ vanilla aesthetics

An admission: like a lot of people who like music and own a computer, I am a Spotify user. I pay £15 a month for a family subscription, which means the music comes without between-song adverts. It is still a thing of wonder, easily among the most miraculous manifestations of digital ingenuity to date. It sometimes makes me feel like a caveman staring at a spaceship.

But I also have a nagging sense of disquiet. Streaming is the reason the three big corporations who define the mainstream music industry are in the midst of an apparent revival, and as the pre-eminent player in that field, Spotify takes a lot of the credit. But for all that its valuation suggests a company in the rudest of health, its economics still look difficult, to say the least.

Its fragile business model reflects where it sits in the history of musical commerce. Just under 20 years ago, the advent of mass illegal file-sharing ushered in a world where songs could suddenly cost nothing; most streaming services are an attempt to accept what that incredible shift meant for the public’s willingness to pay for music, but still somehow wring money out of our listening. So, as with most of the big online streaming services, the rates Spotify pays musicians and their overlords are better than nothing, but still surreally tiny. Though the company’s economics are complicated and opaque, for each individual stream of a song, a medium-sized independent record label will get around 0.27p, some of which will then go to the artist who created it.

For the big music conglomerates, whose deals with the company are built around legendary acts that still attract huge interest, small payouts need not be a problem. If you are Ed Sheeran, whose most recent album was reckoned to have brought in Spotify earnings of £3.5m not much more than a week after it came out, the same applies. But Spotify itself remains financially precarious – at the last count, its annual losses totalled around £420m – and many musicians still boggle at how the company treats them.

Since a loud outpouring of angst that peaked around three years ago when Taylor Swift denied Spotify her music (“Music is art, and art is important and rare …Valuable things should be paid for,” she explained), dismay about Spotify’s rates has seemingly subsided. It can at least claim to be paying a lot more than YouTube, whose average per-stream rate has been put at a princely 0.051p. But big issues remain.

Stevie Nicks. Photograph: Simone Joyner/Getty Images

As proved by an ongoing $1.6bn lawsuit brought by a Canadian firm that collects royalties for such big hitters as Neil Young and Stevie Nicks, there are still questions about whether Spotify has been properly rewarding songwriters. Some payment rates, moreover, have come down in the past few years, and basic maths suggests one way the company might eventually turn enduring profits: by bearing down on artists’ earnings even more.

There is one other particularly irksome feature of Spotify-world. Increasingly, everything is about playlists, the most popular of which are defined by the moods summed up in their titles: “Cinematic chillout”, “Uplifting workout”, the thrilling-sounding “Songs for sleeping”. There are claims that some of the often comically bland tracks therein are made to order, and credited to acts that do not actually exist. Among the company’s most high-profile recent recruits is one François Pachet, an expert in making music using artificial intelligence – shades here of 1984, and George Orwell’s evocation of popular songs “composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator”.

Music industry insiders now talk about artists nipping and tucking their music according to the playlists’ vanilla aesthetics. In a particularly rum turn, multinational companies can pay for their own Spotify pages and then put up their own playlists, with no apparent need for say-so from the artists whose music they use. “Don’t have any single artist appear on your playlist more than once,” goes Spotify’s advice to potential advertisers. “If you have a reason to believe a specific artist may have a problem with your brand, it’s probably smart to stay away from that artist.”

Each day, I wake to find that Spotify’s systems have sent me an array of personal playlists, grouped together as my “daily mix”. On the day this piece was started, for example, mixes one to three were sold to me chiefly via the mention of such acts as Oasis, Happy Mondays, Bob Dylan and the Smashing Pumpkins, while mix four featured Pharrell Williams, Solange, the Mercury prize winner Sampha, and the uncategorisable Frank Ocean. Do you see what they did there? Presumably thanks to a moronic set of ideas about genre, white musicians go in one kind of box, while black ones tend to go in another.

Put all this together, and you have quite a charge sheet: exploitation, the turning of music into wallpaper, and the slicing and dicing of great art according to the crassest of considerations. One thing amazes me: notwithstanding the one or two acts who still refuse to have anything to do with Spotify, why do musicians still blithely put their art in such unreliable care? Would people in any other creative field do the same? On that score, I think of the longstanding Spotify critic Thom Yorke, and a lyric written in the distant 1990s: “You do it to yourself, you do/And that’s what really hurts.”

John Harris

Social media firms told to crack down on grooming

Facebook is subject to a voluntary code over online grooming that critics say does not go far enoughJUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Ministers have been urged to force social media companies to crack down on online grooming after police revealed that they have investigated more than 1,300 allegations of children being targeted in breach of a new law.

Forces across England and Wales have been inundated with complaints about explicit or suggestive messages sent to children on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram that breach the new offence of sexual communication with a child.

The NSPCC, the children’s charity which successfully campaigned for the law, has criticised social media companies, arguing that many of these messages could have been stopped automatically. It said that artificial intelligence already existed to target adverts at users and to detect extremist content. It is demanding that the Home Office put pressure on companies such as Facebook to use the same techniques to root out online predatory behaviour. A new voluntary code, which is part of the government-led internet safety strategy, “does not go far enough”, it says.

In the first six months of the new legislation, girls aged 12-15 were the most likely to be approached by predators; the youngest victims were aged seven. Twenty-two per cent of victims were aged 11 or under, according to the police data obtained by the charity using freedom of information legislation.

Of the 1,316 allegations, 31 per cent were about messages on Facebook, 18 per cent on Snapchat, 14 per cent on Instagram, 17 per cent on other platforms and 4 per cent through online gaming platforms such as Xbox Live. The rest were verbal or came on a text or Whatsapp message.

Matt Hancock, the minister for digital, culture, media and sport, said this morning that social media companies must introduce grooming alerts and that as the father of three children, the issue “really mattered” to him.

He told BBC Breakfast that the companies had become more co-operative but needed to go further and the government was willing to legislate to force changes if necessary.

“In the last year or so they have changed their tone, at least. They say that they now know that there’s a problem and that they are part of the solution. I very much want to do this with the companies because ultimately they are global and you can only have the solution through them. But nevertheless we are absolutely prepared to legislate, as we demonstrated with the law change that we brought in in April last year,” he said.

The NSPCC says that algorithms could identify unusual patterns of activity that pointed to potential groomers. These could include adults befriending or following many young people with no mutual friends and no geographical links, getting a high number of rejected friend requests from children or viewing many posts made by under-18 accounts. Moderators would then decide whether to intervene and make a referral to police.

Tony Stower, the NSPCC’s head of child safety online, said: “Despite the staggering number of grooming offences in just six months, government and social networks are not properly working together and using all the tools available to stop this crime.

“The government’s internet safety strategy must require social networks to build in technology to keep their young users safe, rather than relying on police to step in once harm has been done. If government makes a code for social networks that is entirely optional and includes no requirement for platforms to tackle grooming, this is a massive missed opportunity.”

The highest proportion of offences, a third, was in the north of England. Officers recorded 444 instances, with 119 in Greater Manchester over the period. Ninety-six per cent of suspects were men, with 36 per cent in their 20s, 17 per cent in their 30s and 15 per cent in their 40s.

The law, introduced last April, is leading to prosecutions, although the Ministry of Justice has not published trial and conviction rates. A 33-year-old man who thought that he was chatting online to young girls was convicted of the offence in December. Toni Stevens, from Torquay, admitted sexual communication after he tried to contact 39 girls online, some of whom he thought were 14.

Before the anti-grooming law came into force police could not intervene until groomers met their victims. Simon Milner, the policy director for Facebook covering Britain, said that the company already used technology to track potential offenders.

“We have worked for many years with safety organisations like Childnet and the IWF in the UK, and others around the world, to educate young people on what to do if they are contacted inappropriately online,” he said.

“They should report contact like this to us, the police, and other people they trust. For several years we have also deployed technology to help us identify this kind of behaviour even if it’s not reported to us — and this enables us to alert the police if we see specific children at risk of harm.”

A spokesman for Snapchat said: “The exploitation of any member of our community, especially young people, is absolutely unacceptable and a complete breach of our community guidelines. We go to great lengths to prevent and respond to this type of illegal activity on Snapchat. We are actively exploring this type of detection technology and hope to work closely with regulators to ensure that it can be implemented.”

A government spokesman said: “Online child grooming is an appalling crime that this government is working to tackle. We have provided law enforcement with the capabilities and resources they need to identify grooming victims and bring offenders to justice. Last year we provided police forces in England and Wales with more than £20 million to enable dedicated officers to operate online in forums and chat rooms, to pursue offenders. But companies have to take all steps possible to prevent their platforms being used to abuse children.”




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