Neil Young, Spotify & the Market for Hi-Res Music Streaming

Spotify’s biggest sin may be that is hasn’t managed to offer music fans a Hi-res music streaming service despite past promises to do so.

by Marshall Bowden

This whole kerfuffle that has taken place since Neil Young decided to hand Spotify an ultimatum that resulted in him withdrawing his music catalog from the streaming platform has raised a lot of questions and started a lot of arguments (again) about the responsibility of platforms and broadcasters, when speech is or is not protected by the first amendment, the capitalist marketplace, musicians vs. tech, and the relative merits of Neil Young and Joe Rogan. But maybe the real question is: shouldn’t we be looking at hi-res music streaming services as better overall music platforms than Spotify?

Leaving aside the question of whether Rogan pushed disinformation (spoiler alert: he did), the Neil Young thing created quite a bit of negative energy towards Spotify because it raised an issue that has been bothering a lot of musicians, publicists, music writers, label heads, and others in the business, namely, if Spotify were primarily a music platform, would it pay millions for exclusive rights to a podcaster while continuing to offer chump change to artists whose music is on the platform? Rogan’s signing and the amount of his contract signaled that Spotify definitely did not think of itself as a music company, that music was not first on Spotify’s list. For better or worse, they are a media platform. 

I don’t think that Neil Young thought for a minute that Spotify would nullify Rogan’s multi-million dollar contract to keep his catalog of music, formidable as it is, available on the service. I don’t think that the addition of Joni Mitchell to that list will probably make a difference, nor probably anyone else’s. But you have to ask yourself, as Spotify’s stock price took a hit last week (to be fair, it was a bad week in the market for many tech companies), whether the general public is aware that Spotify is a media platform and NOT a music platform. 

Some subscribers who chose to cancel their accounts with Spotify migrated to Apple Music and to Amazon, neither of which is a music company. But both do a better job of offering music to listeners than Spotify does. They have nice interfaces and they have both come a long way from where they were in offering music a few years ago. Apple offers its lossless file technology, at least on Apple and Android devices (but not Windows), and Amazon offers HD 16 bit and 24 bit files for a large portion of its streaming files. 

There are other, Hi-Res music streaming services, of which probably Tidal is the best known, with Deezer also commanding some media attention. For my money, though, the best Hi-res music streaming service for people who consider themselves to be music people, whose main interest is the music they will hear and who feel that it is worthy of respect in the way that it is presented and that has at least tried to improve the economic relationship between the artist and the streaming platform is Qobuz. Full disclosure: I have signed up for and use the Qobuz service to stream and download Hi-Res quality music.

Qobuz was founded in France and was initially only available in a handful of European countries, becoming available in the U.S.A. in 2019. The service specializes in lossless, high-res music streaming, but it is unique in that it also offers high-resolution music downloads directly from its online store. In addition, it offers album credits and liner notes or reviews that are smoothly integrated into a title’s main page–you don’t have to leave the release in order to obtain more information about it. It has received positive reviews from Rolling Stone and PC Magazine, demonstrating its appeal to old school music fans as well as those that are tech savvy.

Articles and reviews on the Qobuz site are written by professional music writers and are well researched, offering interesting perspectives on releases old and new (kind of like what NDIM does). You don’t just get ‘information’ that is merely regurgitated press releases from publicists and labels, you get the sense that the information presented is designed to help further your understanding of an album that you are interested in. Little things, such as the ability to ‘select label’ from a release in order to see other releases from the same record label, make it feel as though you are in a very cool record or CD shop, being guided by people who are at least as interested in music as you are. 

Qobuz has a number of tracks available that matches Apple Music or Spotify, but it is slightly different. Some newer artists in niche categories may not be available, while the number of titles available in categories such as jazz and classical is greater than on those services. It isn’t the least expensive, though you can decrease the cost by paying for a full year’s subscription rather than monthly. You can also get very nice discounts on Hi-Res downloads if you sign up for the Studio Sublime tier for a year. 

Oh, and in April 2020, when the Covid pandemic was first raging and music venues had been shut down, Qobuz donated 100% of revenues from new subscriptions to artists, who were unable to tour or play live. Maybe it’s not Bandcamp Friday, but how much did Spotify or Amazon do?

The Spotify/Neil Young dust-up has created a vigorous conversation around the idea of platform responsibility for content and first amendment rights. But beneath the surface lies a simmering resentment over Spotify’s virtually unchallenged ascendency in the music streaming market, all the while holding record labels and the artists themselves at arm’s length. The music industry was grateful to Spotify for stopping the bleeding created by the disruption of MP3 files and peer to peer file sharing (Napster), but they neglected the next step, which would be the creation of an industry standard streaming and downloading platform that was created specifically for music and music fans. Tidal, Deezer, and Qobuz have all stepped up to create streaming platforms that have a better product (Hi-Res music) and at least attempt some degree of improved remuneration for artists. Then there is the Bandcamp model, which if combined with the elegant interface and solid editorial content of Qobuz, could be the perfect face of the RIAA or other industry leaders. 

At the same time, Spotify sought to improve its return on investment by investing heavily in the podcast ecosystem, offering large contracts to Harry & Meghan (‘we’ll never be royals’) and to Joe Rogan while stiffing subscribers on better quality music streams. That pissed off artists and a lot of subscribers who, like myself (though it pains me to admit it) remained with Spotify simply because of inertia. 

So Neil Young (and Joni Mitchell, Nils Lofgren, or any other musicians who join their protest) hit a nerve there, a nerve that was irritated by Rogan and the general Covid misinformation miasma that has existed for months, but that was related to deep seated feelings of  unfairness and a lack of any devotion to artistic sensibilities. It’s a sense that music and music fans have been swept aside in their own world, their own house, but that’s where the mistake lies. Spotify was never their house to begin with, because it was never a music streaming service but rather an audio streaming platform that used music to hone its capabilities before investing in content that could bring in the billion dollar babies. 

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