In an effort to combat some of the negative press it's been receiving over its efforts to keep down songwriter royalty rates, Spotify is planning to hold a series of "town halls" where songwriters can air their concerns, a tactic the streaming company tried in 2014, with less than ideal results.
Op-ed by Chris Castle of Music Tech Solutions
If you’ve heard about the high turnover at Spotify, here’s the latest confirmation: Someone at Spotify evidently thinks it’s a good idea to have “town halls” for songwriters in Nashville and Los Angeles (but not New York). “Town halls” imply an open forum where anyone can talk about issues of importance to the community hosting the town hall. That’s apparently not what these Spotify town halls are to be about. The intention is to limit them to a single topic–Spotify’s appeal of the songwriter rates at the Copyright Royalty Board.
First, remember that Spotify did this kind of thing once before in 2014. Remember, in 2014 the company got a lot of groovy from the pillars of the music business who wanted to see Spotify succeed (and make bank on the stock). In 2014, publicly criticizing Spotify was a new thing and it took some courage for artists to go after the company in the days before Spotify executives gorged themselves on the public’s money at the public market trough.
That 2014 charm offensive foundered, to be kind. (See Meltdown at the Soho House: Spotify’s Artist Charm Offensive Tour Self-Destructs on Opening Night and Billboard’s coverage, Spotify’s Artist Outreach Mission Backfires.)
Why was it a disaster? Mostly because try as they might, Spotify couldn’t control a roomful of artists and get them to talk about the topic Spotify chose–especially that one thing that Spotify wanted to talk about, namely how groovy they are. Artist rights advocate Blake Morgan attended the New York meeting and politely and articulately took the Spotify self-cheering section apart brick by brick. This wasn’t a cage match with Big Daddies on either side waiving their arms–the artists knew what they wanted to say and they said it. They didn’t need any help.
This is why I find it hard to believe that Spotify is about to do the exact same thing all over again and expect a different result. The mistake they made the last time was in trying to control the agenda and treat the meeting like a corporate communications event rather than an open dialog. That approach is guaranteed to deliver a meltdown–which it did the last time Spotify tried it. I had to read that news a couple times to make sure it really said what I thought it said as it all seemed counterintuitive.
If the company wants to open a dialog with songwriters and artists, then have that dialog–not a monologue. Live stream it and record it so that everyone who is not able to attend has the opportunity to hear what’s going on. There’s been enough closed door negotiating recently and people are tired of it. Someone’s going to record it anyway, so why not get ahead of it?
But understand this–there is live litigation going on over the CRB rates. Anything that is said publicly by the litigants could end up being admissible in some case somewhere. So be careful what you wish for. There’s a reason why public companies don’t usually engage in “town halls” concerning live litigation.
And also consider this–what if the reason that punches were pulled after Spotify’s US launch was because everyone wanted to sell those shares and cash out. That’s pretty much happened already. Now what’s holding them back?
A town hall is not a great look for Spotify. Particularly when they may get an earful on a host of other issues from the vendors who make their only product–music.
If the smart people really want to dig a hole for themselves, far be it from me to stop them. By all means–dig. I’m just a country lawyer from Texas. I’m sure the rich city fellers know much better than I do.