Goodbye, Friend: Your Favorite Album has “Ghosted” on Spotify

Goodbye, Friend: Your Favorite Album has “Ghosted” on Spotify

(January 28, 2020) Imagine you’re listening to a CD by your favorite artist. You put it in the player and suddenly the disc goes completely blank. All of the songs are gone. Or you grab a longtime favorite vinyl album and realize that there is no music on the platter anymore. That sounds crazy, and it was in the century when music ownership meant what you bought was yours forever. But in the world of music streaming, it is an everyday occurrence. What music is available to you at any time is no longer tied to your “collection.” It is controlled by other people in other places, and it can be taken away as easily as it is given.

Goodbye, Friend: Your Favorite Album has “Ghosted” on Spotify

(January 28, 2020) Imagine you’re listening to a CD by your favorite artist. You put it in the player and suddenly the disc goes completely blank. All of the songs are gone. Or you grab a longtime favorite vinyl album and realize that there is no music on the platter anymore. That sounds crazy, and it was in the century when music ownership meant what you bought was yours forever. But in the world of music streaming, it is an everyday occurrence. What music is available to you at any time is no longer tied to your “collection.” It is controlled by other people in other places, and it can be taken away as easily as it is given.

Like most music fans who stream, I love the ability to pick any of millions of songs at any time and have them arrive at my phone for immediate gratification. But last week, I had a hankering for the album The Tin Man by talented singer/songwriter Aaron Parnell Brown, and when I went to my "saved" music on Spotify…it was gone. All that was left was the darkly shaded playlist of death, showing that the songs were once on Spotify, but now were ghosts. The same thing happened later that day to the breezy acoustic cut “Highway” from Raelee Nikole, one of my favorite songs of the past couple of years, now a darkened memory on the streaming service.

What happened? Well, in the days of buying records, CDs or even mp3s, ownership of music was clear. Everything that was in the store was available to you, and when you bought it, it was yours forever. So even when record labels took an album “out of print” (which happened frequently to low sellers), those who had previously bought it owned their copy forever. My entire Tavares collection became mine on the various dates of purchase in the 1980s, unaffected by the decisions that Capitol Records later made to take the albums out of commission.

But today, it is a different scene. Ownership never moves to the listeners, and it is determined - or redetermined - daily. If a song goes up on Spotify, it will remain there only so long as all the rightsholders (artists, publishers, labels, etc.) agree that it should. If there is a disagreement or an expiration of an arrangement, the song is gone, perhaps forever.

And it is not due to bad motives that these things happen. As David Henson of Fantasy Records told us, “We try to super serve consumers on both ends of the spectrum.  We as labels need to make sure our all of our releases are available on as many platforms as possible.” However, it can be tough at any moment to have everyone involved with the project moving in the same direction. Music licenses expire. Publishers get sold. Artists change representatives. Lots of things can get in the way. 

“If a license reverts (to the original licensor), the licensee has no choice but to issue take-downs to the digital services and it would be up to the new copyright holder to upload them or license the album to another company who would then deliver it to the digital services. Whether that title reappears on the digital services is up to the new copyright holder,” says Denny Stilwell, President of Mack Avenue Music Group. And he adds, “We’ve even seen, on occasion, a title disappear from a service for no apparent reason, and it’s turned out to be an unexplainable digital glitch.” 

The issue gets even stickier for independent artists. Many use the service Tunecore to distribute their music to Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube and others, at a cost of $50 per album, per year. And with the extremely low payment rates to artists from the streaming services, that artist had better receive 15,000 - 20,000 annual streams of songs from that album just to break even. That was the choice that Aaron Parnell Brown had to make. He’s moved in a new musical direction, and it just didn’t make financial sense to keep paying the annual fees to keep The Tin Man online. The result is that new, mass market music from Drake or Justin Bieber will continue to be available on Spotify for the foreseeable future. But the creative, often daring music in the long tail genres like jazz, soul, and blues is the most likely to become unavailable a few years after its release. 

That is the Faustian deal that we have made when we go “all in” on the convenience of streaming, and it is the biggest obstacle for older music fans who grew up owning and controlling their music collections: With streaming, you don’t own what you’re listening to, you’re simply asking permission to listen every day.

So, in an odd twist, some deep music fans have gone “belt and suspenders” with regard to projects that have particular meaningful to them. They may listen on streaming services, but they also download mp3s or buy vinyl or CDs as backup. As Peter Robinson, CEO of Dome Records says, “I do think there is a lot of merit – even in the streaming era - in owning physical copies of albums on CD or vinyl. Then you know you have it.”

I was lucky that I still had the original CD of Aaron’s album. But Raelee Nikole is gone – it’s not even on YouTube anymore – as if I was hallucinating its existence in the first place. I now cherish my stack of a couple thousand pre-2010 CDs as a kind of insurance policy on my favorite classic soul albums. But the music of the past decade that I only listened to via streaming? I’d better enjoy it now, because it may not be there for me tomorrow.

By Chris Rizik

 
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