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Will the departure of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell spark a bigger exodus from Spotify?

In recent days, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Crazy Horse member and E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren made headlines when they pulled their music from Spotify. Although the streaming giant has long drawn criticism from artists for paying particularly paltry royalties, Young, Mitchell and Lofgren were taking a different kind of stance: They took issue with the vaccine misinformation spread on Joe Rogan’s Spotify-exclusive podcast. . Spotify has responded by adding content advisories to podcast episodes that discuss COVID-19, but at this time music from the three rock veterans remains unavailable on CEO Daniel Ek’s platform. Now that a precedent has been set for artists leaving Spotify, will others follow?

No matter where you are in the endless streaming debates, the answer is: probably not. Most artists simply don’t have the legal right to remove their music from one streaming platform or another. In fact, even Young had to rely on the good graces of his record company. “Before telling my friends at Warner Bros of my desire to leave the Spotify platform, my own legal forces reminded me that contractually I had no control over my music to do so,” Young wrote on his website. January 26. “I want to thank my really great and supportive record label Warner Brothers-Reprise Records, for supporting me in my decision to remove all my music from Spotify.”

The contractual hurdles to an artist of Young’s stature pulling their recordings from Spotify underscore how the byzantine details of US copyright law directly affect how Americans consume music. Labels often enter into agreements to secure artists’ “master rights”, i.e. copyright in the original or “main” version of a sound recording (as opposed to copyright in the underlying composition, or on the notes and lyrics written on a page). A dispute over ownership of the masters is what led Taylor Swift, in 2019, to begin re-recording her back catalog. If Swift wanted to delete the Taylor’s version Spotify recordings, probably she could, but not the original versions. As Prince said rolling stone in 1996, “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.” And it was before Prince’s own battles with streaming companies.

Following the withdrawal of Young’s music, other artists quickly realized the limits of their ability to do the same. Alternative rock band Belly changed their artist images on Spotify to read “REMOVE SPOTIFY”, but they acknowledged that removing their music was “difficult” and “very complicated”, despite sharing a rights holder with Young, Warner Music. “When a record company lends an artist money to record material, they expect a return on that investment and that expectation is reflected in contractual obligations and rights of use/control,” Belly said. Variety in a report. “That means we can’t unilaterally decide to pull our work from Spotify, at least for our 1990s releases – we have to ask the label we were contracted to do that. Like other big labels, the one that controls our 90s masters made deals with Spotify, and as a more or less financially inconsequential act that’s probably been bundled into a deal with the other financially inconsequential acts on the label, it becomes complicated to try to extract our material from Spotify.