When Spotify was launched in 2008, it seemed to many still tethered to records, CDs - and even weighty iPods - a miraculous cure for their woes. The subscription streaming service permitted users to listen to music without actually owning it.
But now, a longtime musician known for skewering the music business as we now know it has decided to take Spotify to court. In a class action lawsuit, David Lowery, of the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, more or less alleged that the service is ripping off musicians.
"Spotify has - and continues to - unlawfully reproduce and/or distribute copyrighted musical compositions . . . to more than 75 million users via its interactive commercial music streaming service," according to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California. " . . . Indeed, Spotify has publicly admitted its failures to obtain licenses for the musical works it distributes or reproduces or to pay royalties to copyright owners for its use of their Works."
The price tag for these transgressions against Lowery and others? Incalculable, according to the lawsuit - but $150 million for a start.
"Unless the Court enjoins and restrains Spotify's conduct, Plaintiff and the Class Members will continue to endure great and irreparable harm that cannot be fully compensated or measured in monetary value alone," the lawsuit read.
Spotify, on the other hand, said it is devoted to paying artists what they deserve - and has paid out $3 billion in royalties to date.
"We are committed to paying songwriters and publishers every penny," Jonathan Prince, the $8 billion company's global head of communications, said in a statement, as the Verge reported. "Unfortunately, especially in the United States, the data necessary to confirm the appropriate rightsholders is often missing, wrong, or incomplete. When rightsholders are not immediately clear, we set aside the royalties we owe until we are able to confirm their identities."
Indeed, just last week, Spotify declared it was building a "songwriters and publishers administration system" to figure out who is owed what. But, according to the lawsuit, the fact that the company is setting aside royalties for future payment proves that it is doing wrong.
"It's like saying, 'We know we've taken these people's work, we've never made an attempt to find them, but we know we're playing something without the proper license," Sanford Michelman, who's representing Lowery, told CNN.
Though Lowery's bands continue to enjoy a following, he may be as well known as a spokesman for artists who feel the digital revolution has left their bank accounts behind. A trained mathematician and lecturer on the music business, his opinions became well known in 2012 when he responded to a millennial who questioned the importance of buying any music at all.
"I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ," Emily White, an NPR intern, wrote in a widely-read piece that year called "I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With." "My world is music-centric. I've only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs." She added: "I wish I could say I miss album packaging and liner notes and rue the decline in album sales the digital world has caused. But the truth is, I've never supported physical music as a consumer. As monumental a role as musicians and albums have played in my life, I've never invested money in them aside from concert tickets and T-shirts."
Lowery's response was epic.
"You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality," he wrote. "Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change - if a machine can do something, it ought to be done. Although it is the premise of every 'machines gone wild' story since Jules Verne or Fritz Lang, this is exactly backwards."
The pending litigation shows that his views haven't changed much.
"We've sort of been waiting 10 years now for this digital utopia," Lowery said earlier this year, praising the freedom the Internet offers artists who want to release music at little cost - but pointing out that a creative "golden age" isn't the same as a financial one. ". . . Monetarily, when you really look at it, it's not," he said.
Lowery is far from the only artist who has criticized Spotify. There is, of course, the much-maligned, Jay Z-helmed streaming alternative Tidal. And Taylor Swift memorably took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal in 2014 before pulling her music from Spotify.
"Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently," Swift wrote. "Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It's my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album's price point is.