Spotify might not suppress search, but that doesn’t mean artists with exclusives get treated equally

Accusations that Spotify has been punishing artists for signing exclusives with other streaming services hit the internet in full force this morning, originating from a Bloomberg article. 

When confronted by TechCrunch, a Spotify spokesperson gave the same response they have been giving since the story broke — that the accusations about burying search results are “unequivocally false.”

However, while Spotify has been clear about rejecting one part of the argument against the company, there is another piece of the story that remains unaddressed. Hidden in the details, the accusations are really twofold, including both the notion that

  • Spotify directly suppresses tracks from artists that have previously signed exclusives with Apple Music or Tidal in search results.
  • And, Spotify indirectly targets artists who have signed exclusives with Apple Music and Tidal but promoting music differently in playlists and banner ads.

Taking the statement from Spotify at face value, the company is incredibly clear about not suppressing tracks from artists that signed exclusives with other streaming services deeper in search results.

That said, a representative of a singer-songwriter told Bloomberg that the artist turned down an appearance on an Apple Music show because of fears they would “lose promotion from Spotify.” This is not about suppressing search results, this is about promoting music differently on the Spotify platform as a direct result of exclusives signed with streaming services like Apple Music.

The New York Times also reported yesterday that executives at two major record labels said Spotify had instituted a policy similar to the one described by the artist who opted out of the Apple Music show.

Spotify has long been against exclusives in the music industry, but ultimately hasn’t been able to do much about big deals from Apple Music and Tidal. The picture painted by the artist and record label executives is not unequivocal, but it is very close to it.

The ethics of discriminating against artists for signing exclusives is murky at best. What’s particularly concerning is that exclusive deals can be used to finance albums, which means such policies can disproportionately impact up-and-coming musicians with respect to established artists that can more or less afford to do what they want.

Such practices are a good short term strategy for discouraging the practice, but ultimately it’s users who suffer. If it’s true that Spotify is affecting promotion in this way, the decision cannot be with the listener’s best interest in mind. It’s true that exclusives are bad for piracy and bad for consumers as well, but the solution will not come from putting the average person in the middle of a fight over market share.