Taylor Swift Reminds Everyone How Broken Online Music Is Right Now

By pulling her catalog from Spotify, the artist further destabilizes the streaming ecosystem.

Maybe that music’s in her mind, but it’s sure not on Spotify. (Big Machine Group)

Spotify users who want to listen to old Taylor Swift albums might now be seeing red.

Or, rather, not seeing Red at all.

On Monday, Taylor Swift removed her entire back catalog from the streaming service. The change was announced in a Spotify corporate blog post that even the Gray Lady called passive-aggressive, entitled “On Taylor Swift’s Decision To Remove Her Music from Spotify.”

“We love Taylor Swift, and our more than 40 million users love her even more,” says Spotify’s announcement. “We hope she’ll change her mind and join us in building a new music economy that works for everyone.”

Swift’s old albums—though not her newest, 1989—are still available on smaller streaming services, like Rdio and Beats Music.

We’ve known for a while that Spotify’s economics simply don’t work for musicians. In late 2011 and early 2012, cellist Zoe Keating made 97 percent of her income, almost $82,000, from folks buying her music as CDs or MP3s. She made less than $300 from Spotify during that same period. Later that year, a Buzzfeed reporter couldn’t figure out the per-stream price of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” One source told her it made 19 cents per 60 streams; another said it made .91 of a cent.

With that math, it seemed likely that an artist would pull their music from the service someday. And if that artist was famous enough, it might even get people talking about how dismal the new economics of music are.

But did such noble reasoning prompt Swift’s hasty flight? At The Verge, Jacob Kastrenakes isn’t so sure. Swift’s newest, 1989, might be the first album released in 2014 to go platinum—that is, sell more than 1 million copies. By limiting fans’s effortless access to her entire discography, they might be able to incentivize them to buy its newest member.

In other words, writes Kastrenakes, “Swift and her label are in the extremely uncommon position of having the power to pull this off and likely benefit from it.”

Spotify and other streaming services make it easy to listen to new music, but they also make that listening precarious. Music is constantly appearing and disappearing on the service. If an individual track is in your library now, will it be there next week or next year? Will it be labeled “unavailable” or removed entirely?

The conventional history of digital music claims that Apple put the kibosh on Napster and MP3-stealing not through legal action but through design. Early versions of iTunes made it easy to buy music. Instead of scrolling through densely and obscurely named files on a server somewhere, you clicked through the simple graphical interface and downloaded what you wanted.

Spotify dominates right now because it’s stupid easy. Open it for the first time, type in your email address, and you can listen to some non-trivial percentage of all human-recorded music. But some non-trivial group of online music listeners have now adopted the service, and I think over time many of them will miss the stability of their old MP3 libraries. Many, I’d wager, already do. You make a playlist during college with some clutch T-Swift choices, you expect them to still be there (nestled between Usher and One Direction) when you return a couple years later.

The only way to reclaim that level of stability, though, will be for consumers to buy more music again. Owning music outright, instead of renting it through a streaming service, would be better for listeners and artists in the long run. Indeed, it would be better for just about everyone except Spotify. But will consumers evaluate their options and purchase 1989 this time around, much less Swift’s back catalogue? That’s another story—even if Swift’s just hoping they’ll say “yes.”