If you’re a What’s Good reader, you’ve probably heard that Spotify is back in the news again, thanks exclusively to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. The two legends removed their catalogs from the service last week due to its platforming of animate meatball Joe Rogan, who routinely pushes misleading and dangerous COVID-19 claims on his Spotify-exclusive podcast. Young, a polio survivor and longtime vaccine advocate, was the first to make the demand; Mitchell, also a polio survivor, followed suit in solidarity.
Spotify has been grappling with artists and critics for more than a decade, and more so since expanding its reach beyond music and into the podcast realm. What’s odd is that more high profile artists are not joining in to back these two titans, even as their leverage to force change is being so clearly illustrated. Shedding $4 billion in market value over the dissent of a single artist suggests that more of this type of action could pose a serious threat to the dominance that Spotify so aggressively asserts.
It’s always made practical sense to host What’s Good on Spotify, given the platform’s reach and my own longtime reliance on the service. Since 2015, Spotify has become home to 90% of my likes, followed artists, and playlists. The very thought of shifting all of that work over to a new app is exhausting— but it’s also necessary to re-evaluate, every so often, whether your patronage really aligns with your principles, especially on the matters closest to your heart.
Tidal, a streaming platform launched in partnership with some of the biggest music artists in the world (many of whom remain stakeholders today), has benefited from its competitor’s bad publicity this week; mentions of the service have spiked due to its growing reputation as a more artist-friendly platform. In November, it announced its decision to invest in direct artist payments, which distribute more of a user’s subscription fees to the artists they actually listen to. (Spotify royalty payouts are closer to the federal tax system, in that subscribers don’t have a say in where their money is actually being spent— such as on a $100 million investment in The Joe Rogan Experience.)
Tidal is also rightly gaining recognition for its HiFi Plus audio subscription tier which promises CD-quality and “master-quality” sound. That option runs about $10 more per month than any plan offered by its competitors, giving artists a more favorable royalty share while offering a listening experience that is audibly clearer and crisper, even on basic equipment. (The difference is striking enough to compel me to switch for this feature alone.)
Though it’s steered clear of capitalizing too gleefully on Spotify’s blunders, Tidal did send near-immediate push notifications boasting their retention of Young’s catalog, and promoted both Neil and Joni’s work as featured playlists in the app. Tidal also actually ran features— like magazine features— on both artists, offering backstory and gateway playlists for new listeners. Which takes us to yet another way in which Tidal seems to value traditional forms of in-the-moment music engagement: It maintains an entire editorial arm, led by Elliott Wilson (one of the more influential music journalists in hip-hop’s history), to go deep on the albums and artists and the stories behind them.
At present, I haven’t made any personal decisions about fully switching from Spotify to another service, but these features— and the virtues they project— are quickly winning me over. For now, I’ve begun subscribing to Tidal’s HiFi Plus tier and importing my playlists to get a stronger feel for the user experience. Either way, it feels right to make my primary playlist available for users seeking an experience that may align more closely with their personal values.
So, going forward, What’s Good will also be available on Tidal, and I'll be exploring other streaming platforms as well.
It’s important to note, though, that while Tidal may be the market’s current underdog, it’s still owned by corporations: Sprint bought 33% of the platform in 2017, and last March, Jack Dorsey’s Square (er, I guess it’s called Block now) purchased a majority share. Apple Music pays slightly more per stream than Spotify, but like iCloud and Apple TV, the service has no incentive to make improvements (for artists or users) because it more or less exists to sell phones. Artists have been saying it for ages and it’s true: Streaming does not support them financially.
The root of the problem remains that none of these business models are sustainable for artists. People have come to expect access to the entire history of recorded music for $10/month when a single album once cost nearly twice that amount. To make music should be any musician’s primary focus; they should not have to focus on extra-musical pursuits, marketing techniques, or other desperate measures for survival, and yet that’s exactly where we’re at now, two decades after the majors handed over their storefront power to Steve Jobs and the iTunes Store.
I don’t have a larger solution to this problem, other than to suggest we all make a stronger effort to support the artists who mean the most to us via more traditional models. When you hear an album you love, regardless of how or where you discovered it, support its creators by buying a copy from their Bandcamp store, from the merch tables at their shows, or from local record stores who reinvest into their communities. In the meantime, my hope is that this (algorithm-free) playlist will continue to inspire you to discover emerging, independent, and iconic artists, and to reward their unique vision and hard work through any means available to you, even if that is simply making small donations to your faves as a show of gratitude and respect.
What's Good: The Weekly New Music Newsletter is a new publication by Pitchfork’s founder and former Editor-in-Chief, Ryan Schreiber. A companion to his long-running weekly playlist of the same name, What’s Good outlines the week’s most essential tracks and albums, with a special focus on new and emerging artists. It is now available on Tidal as well as Apple Music and Spotify, and will return to its primary format tomorrow. If you like what you see, go ahead and subscribe. (It's free.)