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Spotify offers artists poisoned chalice – but should they drink it?

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(Image credit: George Dolgikh / Shutterstock.com)

Spotify is undoubtably one of the best music streaming services for music discovery, thanks to its huge range of curated and personalized playlists – and its latest feature is designed to make it easier for artists to deliver their music into your ears.

Called Discovery Mode, the feature allows artists and record labels to flag tracks that are a priority – for example, a new release – and influence the complex algorithm Spotify uses to deliver music into your personalized recommendations. 

To start with, the feature will focus on adding tracks to Radio playlists, which is where Spotify selects a radio-style range of songs based on a track or artist you've chosen, and Autoplay playlists, which consist of songs similar to what you've just listened to when you've finished listening to an album.

In a blog post, Spotify says that, "as we learn from this experiment, we’ll carefully test expanding to other personalized areas of Spotify".

Influencing the algorithm

Spotify says that the new service "gives artists a say in how their music is discovered", and that it believes its recommendations "should also be informed by artists", as well as a number of other "signals", including songs users have on repeated, songs they've listened to in the past, the time of day, and listening habits of people with"similar taste".

However, there's a catch – in return for prioritizing certain tracks, artists and record labels will have to pay a percentage of the royalties generated from this service, and therefore reduce the amount they earn per stream. 

Spotify says that, by not making artists pay an upfront fee, its ensuring the tool is "accessible to artists at any stage of their careers", though the company is yet to reveal exactly how much artists will be sacrificing in return.

There's no guarantee that these prioritized tracks will resonate with users; as Spotify explains, "if the songs don’t perform well, they’ll quickly be pulled back" and that it "won’t guarantee placement to labels or artists, and we only ever recommend music we think listeners will want to hear".

Now, that's good for Spotify users who presumably wont have their personalized playlists flooded by random tracks that record labels have decided to promote and have no relevance to their usual listening habits – but is it a fair trade off for the artists?

A penny per stream

Spotify has been accused of underpaying artists for years, and just last week over 15,000 musicians signed onto a campaign called Justice at Spotify, asking for royalty rates to be increased to at least one penny per stream, "as well as increased transparency, and an end to legal battles with artists, according to music blog Brooklyn Vegan

Those demands highlight just how little an artist actually receives for their streams – and that's without taking into account any recoupment their record label may be entitled to first. 

And, as the current pandemic means artists are losing revenue from live shows and merchandise, streaming revenue is more important than ever. Of course, large record labels will likely be able to take a small hit on streaming revenue in exchange for extra promotion, but for independent artists? The new service could be more of a hindrance than a help.