Since the 1990’s, recording artists have seemingly had a love/hate relationship with the internet. On one hand, the medium allows gives exposure to artists on an unequaled scale. And self-publishing done over the web has allowed some musicians to bypass the normal means of distribution. However, the “wild west” nature of the internet has also led to massive copyright infringement and other issues with revenue collection. Recently, the spotlight in this ever evolving narrative has shone on the streaming site Spotify. Spotify, which lets users stream songs instantly or use an internet radio, pays for the rights to provide these songs by selling advertising space on its various platforms. However, the percentage of revenue they give to artists has been criticized by the artists themselves. The issue came to the forefront when pop/country artist Taylor Swift pulled her music off the site. Swift is one of the best-selling artists in the music industry today, so losing her music was a major blow to Spotify. Furthermore, her actions brought back the question of just how fair are the business practices of streaming sites.
The issue has certainly been raised before regarding how much control artists should have over how their music is shared over the internet. Probably the most famous case involved the site Napster back in 1999. Napster allowed users to freely share audio files with each other. Record companies and artists alike saw this practice as copyright infringement and took the site’s creators to court. Top-selling heavy metal band Metallica famously testified against the service. However, other artists such as Dispatch and Chuck D defended the site. Eventually, the courts ruled against Napster and the service was forced to discontinue. Napster would relaunch as a for-pay music site, but it never repeated its success.
The Napster case also showed a divide in the music community. Like Taylor Swift now, Metallica was already a platinum-selling band and didn’t need the exposure Napster provided. Groups like Dispatch, who were not getting much run on radio or MTV, saw their profiles raised significantly through the service.
After Napster, for-pay sites such as iTunes, Spotify and Rhapsody became the norm for streaming or downloading music on the internet. However, these sites have been criticized for giving artists a much lower percentage of profits than they saw from traditional record sales. With the industry quickly heading towards downloads being the main source of music for consumers, many artists have been vocal about the need to change the business models of these sites.
As an artist, Taylor Swift is in a unique position on this subject. Her career began and rose during the height of services such as iTunes. She has also benefitted from an incredible amount of media exposure, due in large part to her ability to be relevant in both the pop and country markets. She has, without a doubt, benefitted from digital sales throughout her career. But she is also financially stable enough to afford pulling her music off Spotify and famous enough to promote sales anyways. This is not a criticism of Swift, just noting that she is in a position that allows her to do things other artists cannot afford.
Like Napster, Spotify has its defenders in the industry. Dave Grohl, the lead singer of the Foo Fighters, expressed the sentiment that recordings themselves are promotional material to encourage fans to attend live performances. While profits from record sales have long been the main source of income for artists, with the dynamic changing in the digital age the live show has become more important than ever to the livelihood of many groups.
What happens next will be interesting to watch, but I think we can all agree that Taylor Swift has sent the first major shockwave of the for-pay era of music on the internet.

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