Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bad Money Drives Out Good In Spotify

Yesterday I saw someone tweeted about a Mozart track on Spotify, and I clicked it. It's the adagio of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, played by a unnamed pianist, a unknown conductor and a third-or-four-tier orchestra (though it's based in Berlin), from a compilation called "Mozart Through The Ages". It surprised me this track received 11 Facebook Likes. I didn't see many people "Liked" classical tracks on Spotify before.

And it irritated me that, they got the first and third movements in a wrong order. It's the fault of the compiler, not Spotify, because it's the same in Amazon and iTunes.

I understand these complications have their own audience: casual listeners who don't bother with different performers or interpretations, all they want is Mozart, the famous works, the "songs". In the age of content ownership, I totally support these listener to go for the cheap compilations, the 8-hour, 80-track "Mozart Through The Ages" sells at $8.99 in Amazon MP3, and $7.99 in iTunes. A great bargain for the right audience.

I won't ask these causal fans to spend time on figuring out which pianist's Mozart is better, that's not what they look for. But I do think it's Spotify's responsibility to keep their contents in an organized way that's easy to search and browse, and give more exposure to high quality contents and filter the white noise.

If I was Naxos or EMI, I won't be happy that "Mozart Through The Ages" received 45 Facebook Likes on Spotify, while no one Liked the equally easy-to-access, and much better quality compilations like Naxos's The Very Best Of Mozart, or EMI's Mozart Best 100. The inferior compilation is much more popular on Spotify and makes much more money.

To me it's another strange case of Gresham's law (bad money drives out good). In this scenario, most users (customers) don't know/care about the quality, it's not their fault, but the consequence is not good.

Spotify created an environment that all music are available to all users, which should be a great thing. It works perfectly for pop music, Nickelback fans search for Nickelback and get Nickelback, Nirvana fans search for Nirvana and get Nirvana, everybody's happy. Even a Pitchfork critic has no rights to force Spotify to show Nirvana to people who search for Nickelback.

But classical music is a bit different. Most works in the core repertoire have dozens, if not hundreds of different recordings, causal listeners who search for Mozart or best of Mozart on Spotify will only see an endless list of tracks that sorted by popularity. I guess few of them would scroll down some 100 times to find the high quality compilations, most likely they will just pick one album or track from the first few pages and play, and make those tracks even more popular.

So how did these recordings became more popular in the first place?

1, Spotify's problematic "What's New" page, the page that every Spotify user sees every time they login to the client. If you are a longtime user, you probably have already noticed this: every now and then, it shows another compilation of Elvis, Hank Williams, Miles Davis or Brahms. And curiously, they are almost always from totally unknown digital-only labels, which seem just want to cash-in from public domain recordings, grey market bootlegs and cheap recordings repackaged under gimmick names. It should be noted that, historical recordings are valuable, and many great classical labels like Naxos Historical and Music and Arts remaster public domain/archive recordings (many are out of print or neglected by major labels) with great care, their work should be appreciated. But what graced Spotify's What's New page were always those repackaged bargain compilations, whose sole reason for existence in the market is their low price. In another word, they have no reason to exist in Spotify's same-price-for-all platform, let alone being featured on the What's New page. But a few months ago, a series of Composers Through The Ages stuff appeared on there, got a lots of plays, and  became more popular than most decent recordings, therefore occupied the first pages of search results.

A more direct example, suppose Youtube constantly features low quality/bootleg music videos of Michael Jackson on their front page, and Sony/Epic's high quality official videos are nowhere to be found in the first 10 pages of search results, what would the users and Sony feel about it?

2, Ironically, badly tagged classical albums are more competitive sometimes. When a layman searches for Mozart, which search results has the highest click through rate? Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 played by Vladimir Horowitz? Horowitz who? The most popular Mozart tunes on Spotify are not played by any virtuoso from the recording era, but by a guy whose full name is "Mozart". Like this. Simple, clear, hence welcomed by many users. This is bound to happen, and would only get worse over time, if Spotify don't intervene.

I'm not saying the 45 people who Liked Mozart Through The Ages are not entitled to their music, what I purposed here is Spotify should spend a little effort on curating the contents. Though most casual fans probably can't tell the difference between Horowitz and a nobody at first, at least they won't complain if you serve them with better recordings at no cost on their part. And too many unwanted results is indeed a problem for listeners who want decent recordings but don't know how to search.

It would benefit everyone: casual fans find decent recordings with the same searches that lead them to inferior ones; better severed users become more loyal users of Spotify; decent labels make the money they deserve, no more hijacked by repackaging labels which add no value to music or Spotify.

I want to emphasis that this is not a snobbish complainant. Most sane people, including me, didn't grow up with classical music these days, and everyone should be happy and even grateful that some of them bother to search for Mozart. Spotify has done a great job making all those great music available to everyone, I just hope they can do a little more to maximise the value of the music.

And this is not a pro-monopoly argument either. Both majors and indies deserve to be treated fairly, and repackaging labels harm them both. I am all for the free market idea, if the users are fully aware of all the opinions there, and more people freely choose the recordings that I see as inferior, I won't have a problem. The problem is, currently Spotify is not a free market because of two reasons I stated above. So I think a little adjustment is in need.

In the past, most causal listeners bought cheap compilations from bargain labels and picky elites bought full price releases from decent labels. Indeed the lack of interest may be a factor that prevented the laymen to go further beyond the few albums and compilations they bought, but the price was undeniably a barrier as well. By its design Spotify should radically change the situation: now the laymen should be able to get access to decent compilations and albums that they wouldn't buy before, and can dig as deep as they want. Since everything is at the same price, the best music/recordings should win most audience and the best musicians/labels should get rewarded the most. But so far Spotify hasn't fully realized its great potential, at least in classical music and jazz. Many or most casual fans still listen to the same bargain recordings, and weirdly, the only one party that seems to benefit from this situation so far is the repackaging labels, because now they are profiting from people who won't even spend $8 on a 8-hour compilation before.

How can Spotify improve and fix the problem? Personally I'd like to see weekly or monthly charts by genres, an iTunes Store style page to browse important new releases/series and editions by genres and labels (instead of having to search for everything), and curated playlists/list of essential recordings for the most important composers (inside the client, most causal fans would never go to third party sites to look for classical music).

I also hope the labels can start to promote their contents on Spotify, most of you have more marketing power than repackaging labels, so why not use it? DG just scored a hit in the biggest playlist sharing site, with a playlist titled Classics For Work. Why not? Most of the 1,000 people who listened to that playlist probably won't listen to classical music at all if you didn't tell them classical music can increase their productivity at work, and who is to say that none of them will become a diehard Mahler fan or classical concert goer?  Spotify could do a lot more for classical music, I hope both Spotify and the labels seize the opportunity, and not let the repackaging labels keep on ripping them off. Bury those labels that add no value to music, their days are numbered, just as digital content ownership. Amen.


  1. Thanks for the great post and the work you do here. I think the labels have the power to persuade Spotify to rethink the classical "user" experience, and to take some of your suggestions seriously, as a way to increase their own per-play revenue. The majors and independents are the ones financially, negatively, affected by Spotify's current model (as you so accurately describe it) since they currently get fewer full-stream plays thus less compensation. I should think EMI or Sony could, or will, threaten to remove their catalog from Spotify when and if their revenue streams (pun intended) fall short of expectations.

    Also, are we sure that just because a selection has more Likes, or any at all, and because it shows up sooner in the searches, that it actually gets more full-song-stream plays than pieces that were searched using different critera? Also, the casual listener may not play these pieces all the way through, and replay them, or add them to playlists, as much as someone with more sophisticated tastes might with better or more legitimate recordings.

    I suppose it's moot, in that even if these selections didn't garner more plays, they do detract and take some amount of income away from the true labels.

  2. Spotify shows tracks popularity in search and album view, I think that indicates the number of full plays, i.e. the revenues generated. One evidence is shorter than 30-second tracks have no popularity mark, because, most likely, Spotify doesn't count them when calculating royalties.

    Judging by that mark, Mozart Through The Ages is 3-4 times more popular than the Naxos and EMI compilations.

    Revenues from classical music on Spotify may not be Sony's top priority, as long as there's no repackaged Yo-Yo Ma or Lang Lang recordings. But I can imagine the Elvis estate and RCA won't be happy that hundreds of Elvis compilations polluted Spotify's Elvis page/search results, and took money away from them. In 2011 alone dozens more Elvis compilations appeared. I don't know Elvis well enough to tell if all those compilations are unnecessary (maybe some of them are remastered rare stuff that Sun/RCA hasn't done), but most of them look suspicious.

    And it takes a long time to open the Elvis page (nearly 10 MB in size!). By all means Spotify should just load official releases (those listed by Wikipedia or official sites) of the artists, and file all the rest under another tab, or a drop down list in the compilations section. It would make the pages of prolific artists much more easier to browse, and save some bandwidth for Spotify as well.

  3. Currently there are 75,564 tracks on the 12-MB Elvis page...

  4. Total track number in Spotify's artist page:

    Louis Armstrong: 86,202

    Miles Davis: 29,560

    Ella Fitzgerald: 78,118 tracks,

    Billie Holiday: 66,063 tracks,

    Duke Ellingtion: 53,459 tracks,

    Count Basie, 36,023 tracks,

    Benny Goodman, 37,765 tracks.

    All I can say is: crazy, please stop.

    This figure doesn't work for classical music, but the situation is even worse.

  5. I really enjoyed reading your post, and agree with you in most of what you said.

    I really don't believe spotify should curate the music, that would unlevel the playing field that is what actually got them where they are...I do believe they could organize the library: I completely agree with the official recordings separate to the compilations. And here, people ARE willing to help.

    I believe spotify see themselves as a platform, but aren't really convinced of that idea. That's why they have opened the API and all. I can see them becoming for music what Twitter is becoming for social exchange: if you look, Twitter is really a medium for consumption and not for creation (not even participation).

    Maybe spotify could profit from "Promoted" playlists: labels would make the list and they would pay spotify some money to put it in a prominent place inside the app. That way they would get exposure for their tracks, and if the playlist is successful then they would promote their works and get payed some royalties.

    I do believe there's a lot of work to be done, but they need to be smart about it: they don't have the kind of muscle or control over everything as say Apple does, so they can't aim to control the platform as apple does with their App Store...they do need to provide a good platform for others to build on, and I think organizing their DB is the minimum they need to do in order to make that work.

  6. It's all to do with tagging. For some stupdi reason Mozart comes up as performer. I know what I'm looking for in Spotify because I was brought up with classical music. But even I find it difficult to find a particular Haydn symphony by Antal Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica because the numbers of the symphonies are missing in the tags.

  7. @Anonymous, I've noticed the missing tags problem of many Decca/DG albums, and notified the label. They were properly tagged before (with symphony numbers). Hopefully they will fix it soon.

  8. You should check out this article, it'll make you cry: There is even an economic interested in this stuff by one of the Spotify backers...

  9. Quickly want to thank you so much for this post. New to Spotify, and a classical music novice, really. Your points and links are incredibly illuminating for me, as are the comments. I want to get to the quality recordings more easily.

    I hope that Spotify is listening and would consider adopting some of the suggestions here.

  10. great post, please Spotify - do something.

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