Spotify's Privacy Stumble Highlights Pros & Cons of Data Collection
by Ian Dunham, Policy Fellow
Generally speaking, there is always a tradeoff when it comes to services we use online, especially ones that are ostensibly free to consumers. For example, when we use any of Google’s services, such as Gmail or Google Maps, we deputize them to collect an array of data points on us—from our location, to the type of computer we are using, even to the types of restaurants and shops we patronize. That data is an essential part of how customization and personalization works, but it also can have other commercial uses, from ad-targeting to collection and sale of agreggated demographic data. Services’ privacy polices outlines the ways in which this data can be used, but most people don’t read these policies since nothing disastrous has happened to most of us yet. We probably should be paying more attention.
When it comes to DSPs like Spotify, excitement about the access such a service provides can get in the way of understanding the way the service works—that data collection and the ability to serve more targeted advertising is part of the revenue model. As avid music fans, we should consider the technical implications of a service, as well as the role they play as a cultural arbiter. Reading privacy policies isn’t just for paranoids and tech industry wonks—as the pair of Wired pieces elucidates, we all have a stake in understanding how companies use information about us.
Services are increasingly eager to tout the benefits of data collection for artists and labels working to leverage the power of the Internet to acquiring a larger audience. Indeed, access to fan data could prove incredibly useful for some kinds of artists. Knowing where your music is being listened to on DSPs can help you plan a tour, and seeing the age of people who listen to your music can give you insight into what kinds of physical merchandise to invest in. As long as this data is being collected with the knowledge and consent of all parties, with appropriate opt-out provisions, then sharing that data with artists could be quite helpful and mitigate some of the frustrations over low per-stream payouts. Of course, this data is going to be more actionable for some classes of artists than others. Professional songwriters who don’t tour, for example, wouldn’t particularly benefit from knowing that their song is particularly popular in Lincoln, Nebraska.
And there are limits to the kinds of data that most DSPs are willing to provide to artists. From a recording artist’s perspective, there are some simple modifications to current online systems that would greatly increase their utility. Data interoperability is a major concern. For instance, if an artist invests in building a fanbase on Facebook, there is no simple way to migrate that investment to a different system, such as SoundCloud; the currency that artist has earned in the form of likes, followers, and listens on Facebook cannot be spent anywhere else. From a technical perspective, it would be incredibly easy for Spotify to implement a “share my email address with this artist” button on an artist’s page to allow artists to connect with fans more directly. But because services have an interest in keeping people within their application or platform, ecosystem, few services seem to feel incentivized to allow for building those connections outside the service.
On the other hand, we might also consider the ways that new DSPs might be able to offer services that don’t require us to give up as much data. Is there an alternative to the music-for-personal-info schema? Some Internet companies have been able to capitalize on a “no data collection” platform, and have largely attracted people concerned with their privacy. It’s possible that an enterprising music service could embrace a similar policy to their competitive advantage.
In any case, the debate about the potential costs and benefits of data collection for both consumers and creators is likely to continue. At our 15th Future of Music Policy Summit, on October 26-27 in DC, we’ll be hosting a conversation about the role of data in a fast-changing marketplace, featuring Kirin Gandhi (former drummer for M.I.A. and data analyst for Interscope Records) and Liv Buli (data journalist for Next Big Sound/Pandora). Bring all of your questions, and remember that musician scholarships are available, allowing musicians to attend the entire event at a sliding scale price starting at just $25.