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Spotify’s Artist Diplomat Troy Carter on His Goals, Frustrations, and the Platform’s ‘Meritocracy’

There’s been no shortage of criticism leveled at Spotify as the streaming giant has rapidly grown to become a dominant force in the way music fans consume their favorite songs. Taylor Swift locked horns with the Stockholm-based company for paying what she feels is a pittance in royalties while cashing in on the advertising that’s heard between tracks in it freemium service. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke famously vilified Spotify as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” And withholding their albums — even entire catalogs — from Spotify and other streaming services was a tactic that icons like Adele and Swift used to try to boost sales of downloads and physical product.

As controversies swirled, and with the battle seemingly escalating, it was clear the platform had an image problem both among artists and consumers. That’s a major reason why Spotify in 2016 brought on then 43-year-old Troy Carter as its global head of creative services. A music insider, the former manager of Lady Gaga and Meghan Trainor could speak the language of all those involved. “I serve as a sort of conduit between the music business and Spotify: labels, publishers, songwriters, artists and managers,” he tells Variety. “I’m a bit of a translator and a bit of a diplomat.”

A native of West Philadelphia, Carter launched his career working for local heroes Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff. He relocated to Los Angeles for Smith and film producer James Lassiter’s Overbrook Entertainment. In 1999, he formed a management company with Julius “J” Erving (the basketball great’s son), managing rapper-actress Eve before selling the firm to Sanctuary Group in 2004. Carter then struck out on his own and formed Atom Factory, where his first client was feisty 21-year-old singer Stefani Germanotta, who called herself Lady Gaga. She became a global superstar just after the 2008 release of her debut album, “The Fame.” But Gaga and Carter had a contentious parting of ways five years later — on which neither side has commented since. He’s still complimentary of his former client: “She’s a phenomenon. One of the proudest moments in my career was helping her accomplish her dreams.”

Armed with credibility from a decades-long career in the music business, Carter has spent the 18 months since being hired working to build relationships with musicians. Last year he launched the streaming service’s emerging artist program and a songwriters’ camp. He has defended Spotify’s payment model at industry conferences. The married father of five also does double duty these days as an entertainment adviser to the $300 million Prince estate, which has been plagued by complex problems since the artist died in 2016 without leaving a will.

Carter caught up with Variety from his Los Angeles office to discuss the future of streaming, his goals and accomplishments since joining Spotify, and his frustrations with the business.

What were your immediate goals when you started at Spotify?
Most importantly, we wanted to establish dialogue and communication with the creative community and show them why Spotify is an important partner. Coming from being a manager who was on the other side of those conversations, I don’t think there was a clear dialogue between the two worlds or a clear understanding of the importance of streaming music. So we looked at engaging with the community, building marketing plans for our platform products, allocating financial resources and building a creative team, and then marrying that to the editorial team [curating] the playlists. That was the underlying foundation of what we built, and everything else kinda sits on top of it.

Those playlists and programs are curated internally. What do you say to artists who want to be noticed by your team? 
It’s just them doing the work and reaching audiences. Our editors and marketing team are always out at shows and on the internet — they’re just the normal channels, and if the music’s good it’s going to stand out.

It seems like Spotify promotes new and superstar artists at the same time — can you do that? 
Yes and no. We have programs for both, but also you’re gonna find Ed Sheeran and [independent electronic-pop act] Lauv potentially sitting next to each other within a lot of the same playlists. We have 4,500 owned-and-operated playlists that are very diverse in terms of music [genres and styles]. Be creative and we’ll find a place for you.

What do you say to people who allege that Spotify favors major-label artists over indies on its home page and in promotions?
Spotify favors hits. It’s very much a meritocracy: It’s not like radio, where whatever is being played is what you hear. We offer songs up, and from there it’s up to consumers to stream the music or not. That goes for big and small artists: If superstars come with [subpar] songs, you’re gonna see that in the number of streams they get, and when a new artist connects, their streams can go into nine figures.

Do you ever see Spotify becoming a label?
No. We’ve become a good partner in terms of helping labels and artists find audiences and build, but actually being a label is not interesting to us.

As streaming grows, do you think that more artists will be able to build sustainable careers from recorded music?
There have always been superstar artists and struggling artists. It’s always boiled down to the quality of your music and the quality of your deal with whoever’s distributing your music: There are artists who sold a lot of records and didn’t make money because of their deal, and artists who didn’t sell nearly as much who made a great living because they own their masters. I think there’s always going to be that sort of classism in music, but today, artists can go to [independent distributors and administrators] like TuneCore or Stem and hopefully do better deals to capture the value. I think as more people [subscribe] to streaming services, there’s going to be a lot more money flowing in.

What’s your biggest professional frustration since you took this job?
I probably would say it’s the loud minority. We have great relationships with the majority of artists we work with, and then you get an article written by a disgruntled artist, and that becomes the leading story and there’s this artists-versus-Spotify perception around the relationship. There are tons of artists who love working with us.

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