It hasn't been a great week PR-wise for streaming services. Spotify's expanded Discovery Mode has attracted criticism from musicians and producers, and in the US the Writer's Guild of America has been gunning for streaming too. Both groups of people have the same basic beef: they claim that streaming is generating big sums of money for pretty much everybody apart from the people who actually create the content.
You can see why musicians might be upset about Spotify's Discovery Mode. It promises improved discoverability for artists, but that exposure (opens in new tab) – a word that makes many creative people shudder when they hear it – comes with a high cost: a 30% commission. That's a huge chunk when you consider how low Spotify's streaming payments already are, and it hasn't been greeted with widespread enthusiasm: some critics have likened Discovery Mode to payola, a 20th Century radio DJ practice where records wouldn't get played at all if the DJ didn't get cash, a credit or favours of other kinds.
The Future of Music Coalition is a long time Spotify critic, and this week it posted about Discovery Mode: "It’s perhaps the most brazenly anticompetitive form of payola we’ve seen in digital music... It’s time for regulators, enforcers, and Congress to step up and protect artists from these kinds of predatory business practices."
It's a safe bet that TV writers would be sympathetic. They're battling the streamers too.
Not all drama happens on screen
The Writer's Guild is setting out its stall because its current deal with the American Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) runs out in May. According to the Guild, the spoils of streaming aren't going to the writers. In fact, the people who write your favourite shows are worse off than ever before.
The Guild says (opens in new tab) that "companies have leveraged the streaming transition to underpay writers, creating more precarious, lower-paid models for writers’ work." Contracts that weren't designed for the complexity of streaming, the Guild says, are so full of loopholes that writers' incomes are falling right through them. If you factor in inflation, writers are now earning an average of 14% less than they were five years ago.
There's a lot going on here, and the Guild goes into a lot of detail in its bulletin. But some of the figures are genuinely disturbing. The proportion of TV writers working for the minimum union rates has increased from 33% to 49% in a decade, and the Guild says that writers are increasingly being asked to provide extra work for free. The Guild says that in the comedy-variety sector, where streaming is really the only game in town, "companies have refused basic MBA protections—minimums for scripts and weeklies—for comedy-variety writers when they work on streaming series", even though the same firms' writers for broadcast TV have those protections.
There are of course two sides to every story, especially when that story is a labour dispute. But there's no doubt that streaming has had a seismic impact on the entertainment industries, and that its impact has changed the game for people at all levels – and not necessarily in positive ways.