Is Spotify’s Discovery Mode just asking acts to work for ‘exposure’?

Acts will be able to get on the right side of the platform's recommendation algorithm... at a cost

If Rishi Sunak was really serious about saving the arts, there’s one simple solution he could announce tomorrow. No dancers would have to retrain for cyber, no musicians need to be rendered “unviable”, no billions of public funds would have to be syphoned into shell companies registered six months ago in Panamanian lock-ups under the name of Doris Johnson. It would cost the treasury absolutely nothing and music would not just be protected through the pandemic, it’d instantly become the primary driving force of the entire country’s economic recovery.

All Rishi has to do is stand up in Parliament and declare ‘exposure’ as legal tender.

Overnight, the poorest busker would become richer than Rockerfeller and struggling artists the new ultra-elite class. Not only could they finally exchange their vaults full of ‘exposure’ – gathered over many years of basically being asked to work for free – for essentials like rice, bread, opium and beard glitter. They could buy up entire dying town centres and transform them into Dagenhoriums of cultural wonder, where every deserted Pizza Hut salad bar is repurposed as a Grecian amphitheatre and revellers across the land follow nightly processions of tumblers, poets and fire-breathers to the year-round carnival of delights that shall become known as Greggstonbury.

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Instagram influencers and podcasters would become the new Bank Of England, financing these glorious boom days with endless streams of ‘exposure’ for services rendered, previously, for no monetary recompense. And the Magikarp Guy gawping away in the Australia’s Got Talent meme would be the new Jeff Bezos.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Spotify, too, has decided to replace hard currency with ‘exposure’, believing that working for even less money is, in fact, the golden path to endless riches. You might have thought it’d be easier to split a proton than separate a penny into an even smaller fraction than they already pay musicians per stream, but this is exactly what they’re proposing with their exciting new Discovery Mode feature. Or should that be Sheer Slavery Mode?

Here’s the deal. Spotify are set to offer acts the chance to gain additional ‘exposure’ for specific tracks through the recommendation algorithms of their Radio and Autoplay features, boosting the chances of the Equation That Decides All Things pushing that track under the nose of thousands of random streamers. The idea being that more casual listeners hear your best tune, go check out all your other tracks and boom, Capaldiville here you come. You get more fans, the algorithm – which I’ve always pictured looking like James Corden faking enthusiasm at a Drake gig – gets less dictatorial, everyone wins, right?

Not quite. In return for having their track additionally promoted thus, the artist will be expected to accept a “promotional recording royalty rate”. Translation: they’ll probably make even less money (and Spotify will make more) on their very best tracks, in the hope of hitting the jackpot with their album filler. The Pennsylvania election team are now working around the clock to count the number of decimal places in this new royalty rate, and hope to announce the result by Christmas.

Many have cried “payola” at this – the act of paying for promotion on a seemingly impartial platform, giving the best-funded acts and products a disproportionate advantage – but it’s worse than that. It’s another stride in music’s furious race to the poverty-striken bottom.

First of all, it’s a move that once again ignores the fact that streaming isn’t (as Spotify would have us believe) merely a promotional tool identical to radio, which directs the fan to other income streams for the artist (and pays far better for the privilege). It’s a replacement for many of those income streams, particularly album and download sales. When the listener can choose to hear a track as many times as they like at their leisure – tantamount to, well, ‘owning’ it in essence – it stops being ‘promotional’ and starts being, y’know, the actual product. Tesco might just as well argue that they should pay Haribo less for their Goldbears multi-packs because they’re basically just adverts for Starmix.

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And then you consider the deluge factor. Since it costs the artist nothing to turn on the higher profile/reduced rate feature on a track, and Spotify will inevitably trumpet it as a raging success when it helps break an artist or two, what happens when it becomes ‘essential’ common practice for every act? When everybody does it, Spotify is swamped with millions upon millions of Discovery Mode tracks competing for the same amount of recommendations and it no longer gives the artist any more of a meaningful promotional leg-up than they have right now? Why, then musicians are scrabbling just as hard for attention as they are today, but everyone’s earning even less from their best and most popular songs. Cue Discovery Mode Plus, for a wafer-thin extra fee.

At a time when musicians are struggling more than ever, and streaming and download platforms are pivoting away from music towards more profitable podcasts, there’s a real sense of exploitation about Discovery Mode, of rinsing music for all its worth before dumping it on the back burner to sputter itself out. But as proved by the popular monthly Bandcamp Fridays during lockdown – when the digital platform waives its share of sales to the tune of $20 million extra going to the artists this year – the appetite is there for a fairer alternative. And a death-of-MySpace level shift is well overdue, not least because, at time of writing, British Gas continues to refuse to set up direct debits in heart emojis.

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