Screenshot via Justice at Spotify / UMAW

These musicians formed a union to demand fair pay from streamers like Spotify

Thom Yorke once famously called Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” I don’t know about that. The world’s most popular music streamer made $7.3 billion in revenue in 2019, though to be fair only $1.8 billion of that was gross profit. Anyhow, Spotify has long been maligned for its paltry payout rates to the actual musicians behind its content. A mid-sized indie label earned just $0.00348 per stream, per a recent report. And now, a musicians workers union is demanding a pay hike for artists, to one cent per stream, with a new campaign called “Justice at Spotify.”

The Justice at Spotify initiative launched by the newly-formed Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) already has the support of more than 6,500 musicians. The list includes Sheer Mag, Sammus, Julia Holter, Saul Williams, Algiers, Discwoman, Frankie Cosmos, Eve 6, and many more.

“It is way past time that artists unite to demand better treatment from Spotify and other streaming companies. Spotify’s valuation has continued to soar throughout the pandemic, while musicians across the world suffer,” reasoned UMAW organizer Mary Regalado.

The musicians workers union has three simple demands of Spotify: Pay Us (at least one cent per stream); Be Transparent (by crediting all information on recordings, open closed-door contracts with big labels, etc.); and Stop Fighting Artists (i.e. end the streamer’s current lawsuits against music workers).

The obvious pushback against fair pay for artists is that Spotify could be in financial trouble if they do so. Let’s go back to the Swedish streamer’s 2019 financials for a moment, shall we? Spotify only had $1.8 billion in wiggle room, with much of the $5.5 billion difference already going to labels and artists.

If the dismal royalties Spotify already pays to musicians doubled or even tripled in most cases, that could add billions of dollars a year in extra expenses to the company’s bottom line. But I mean, Spotify also shelled out $566 million for a 17-year lease on its luxe New York City headquarters, so maybe there’s more fat to be trimmed and reallocated to artists than one might initially assume.

Anyhow, the union also calls bullshit on Spotify’s rickety business plan. “These demands are what Spotify needs to do to become a platform that works for artists. If Spotify’s business model can’t pay artists fairly, and can’t operate openly, then it shouldn’t exist,” explained UMAW organizer Damon Krukowski.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek didn’t exactly endear himself to artists earlier this year, either. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic that has been economically devastating for millions of workers, including musicians, Ek suggested that creators simply needed to churn out more content to survive. “You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough,” the billionaire said in a recent interview.

“Daniel Ek says: ‘work harder.’ We say: pay us fairly,” UMAW organizer Josi Arias said in response. Mic reached out to Spotify for comment, and we will update this post if we receive one.

If Ek and Spotify continue dismissing the needs of artists, the union noted there are plans to escalate. “There is money being made in the music industry during the pandemic, it’s just not going to artists,” said organizer Cody Fitzgerald. “We need to stand together to demand our fair share.”

It’s like they sing in the classic Broadway show The Pajama Game, starring Doris Day. (Full disclosure: my high school put on this musical when I was a nerdy theater teen.) “Seven and a half cents doesn't buy a hell of a lot, Seven and a half cents doesn't mean a thing! But give it to me every hour, Forty hours every week, And that's enough for me to be living like a king!”

See? Musicians don’t need all of Ek’s $1.8 billion extra, per se. They’re just asking for a living wage.