Spotify, Streaming, and the Erasure of Access

Whenever I recommend a lesser-known album to my friends, I get asked the same question right away: “Is it on Spotify?” In a time where fewer people than ever are buying music, and most can only afford a monthly streaming service, Spotify’s near-monopoly of the streaming market gives this question a sinister subtext. When those loyal to a streaming service ask, “is it on [blank],” what they are implying is, “if it isn’t, I’m not listening to it.”

In making the Spotify playlists for this year’s Music by Women spreadsheet, I took note of the releases which were not available on streaming services. When I looked at them, I noticed an unsettling trend: these albums were largely made by LGBTQ+, POC, and non-English speaking artists. While the difference between being on Bandcamp instead of a Spotify playlist may seem like a minor technicality, it dramatically increases the likelihood of these releases being ignored.

What this highlights is a disparity of access that runs through the entire music industry. Getting one’s music on a platform like Spotify requires either a third-party service or a deal with a record label. This puts marginalized artists, who often struggle to find the financial means to record music—never mind distribute it, in an untenable position. An artist can either buy their way into a platform and sacrifice a large chunk of their revenues in the process, or hold out hope that they’ll be fortunate enough to land on a reputable label. Either way, the pursuit of music-making becomes unsustainable.

Worse, the latter scenario is made inordinately more difficult for marginalized women. In an industry landscape where even independent music is profit-driven and dominated by white cishet patriarchy, female/non-binary artists are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to creating while maintaining their quality of life. If not outright ignored, artists from these demographics are often pressured into sanitizing their art so as to appease the higher-up gatekeepers. The masses don’t like it when music is too queer, too black, too feminine, and labels often curate their rosters accordingly. Faced with a choice between compromising their art and compromising their livelihood, the vast majority of these artists instead sacrifice platforms such as Spotify and resist participating in the industry at all.

This, in itself, is not an inherently bad thing. Underground artists and scenes will always exist. They are safe havens for the oppressed, and essential breeding grounds for new ideas to develop and work their way into the mainstream. But the underground is an ever-ailing organism, and ensuring its continued survival requires a change in our individual listing habits.

If we continue to become increasingly dependent on the algorithmic discovery engines and limited selections of streaming services, then the music of marginalized women will continue to ignored. As our spreadsheet illustrates, this comprises some of the most exciting and forward-thinking music being made today. Instead of ignoring artists who aren’t on our choice of streaming service, we should be saying, “They’re not on Spotify? Good.” It plays a large role in maintaining a thriving, fascinating, and diverse music culture.

So, in exploring our spreadsheet, I urge you to pay particular attention to the artists not featured on Spotify or other streaming services. These are wholly independent artists, many of whom are marginalized and struggling to be heard on a multitude of levels. Stepping outside the convenience of playlists and spending a few dollars on someone’s music is an effective and effortless way to expose oneself to innovative, underrepresented voices operating far outside the norm. On a large scale, it serves to enrich not only individual tastes, but the spectrum of musical expression. It is up to the consumer to break down the barriers restricting access to art.

Women are creating worlds. Do your part, and listen.

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