Author: Jenny Huong Dao

Spotify prioritizes access to music

Spotify announced on March 2 that its subscriber base has entered the 50 million margin, which is more than twice Apple Music’s subscriber base. Spotify has enjoyed continuous financial growth since its founding nine years ago. Despite these numbers it has still been impossible for Spotify to make a profit because the company pays a substantial amount for licensing rights and subscriptions are relatively cheap. In order to offer a wide range of music to its listeners, Spotify has to pay to license its library of 30 million songs from the artists and producers. The licensing fees and copyright payments eat up 80 percent of the company’s revenue, and they are only getting more expensive with time. Meanwhile, the company charges $9.99 for premium subscriptions, and only 30 percent of its listeners pay the subscription fee. The rest are still listening for free.

It appears to be increasingly less likely that Spotify will be able to generate a profit in the near future. Spotify is considered a potential acquisition for big companies like Facebook and Google. Artists and many music producers are frustrated with Spotify for the minuscule profit that it is generating. International pop star Taylor Swift made headlines in November 2014 when she decided to remove her songs from Spotify, expressing her anger.

“I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music,” Swift said. “And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.”

The financial struggle of Spotify raised economic concerns and philosophical questions. Should access to music be this cheap? Should profit matter in the music industry? Is it due to competition in the streaming music industry that Spotify has struggled? How long can Spotify deal with financial losses? Spotify also does not pay its artists what most other music services do, but how can they when they’re suffering such great financial losses?

I personally disagree with Taylor Swift’s philosophy on music. Music is valuable in and of itself, but its value lies in its audience’s appreciation. Spotify allows music to be accessible to a worldwide audience with little financial burden. Two famous philosophers could back me up on this point. Leo Tolstoy and John Dewey assert that the value of art lies in its ability to convey the artist’s feelings and emotions to the audience. In order for this to happen, there needs to be an actual audience to listen. Spotify values music, and that is why they have been willing to experiment with limited profits that few are willing to try. How many music services can do such philanthropic work? In a world that is increasingly profit-oriented, copyright and licensing fees have become the main domain of the music industry. Music is an expression of human feelings and creativity, and the fact that it stopped being universally accessible has caused people to illegally download music. Spotify offers a perfect alternative to this trivial crime by making music more available and keeping the financial burden of music access to a minimum. Spotify elevates the value of music without compromising any artists’ or music producers’ revenues. Profit is one thing, but access to music should be considered a necessity and not a privilege. Spotify has been able to achieve both without compromising the other.

Despite skepticism about its sustainability, Spotify directors Martin Lorentzon and Pär-Jorgen Pärson maintain an optimistic view on the sustainability of Spotify’s business.

“We believe our model supports profitability at scale. We have already proven that we’ve created real value for our users, and we know that the more time people spend with our product, the more likely they are to become paying subscribers,” the directors said.

“We believe we will generate substantial revenues as our reach expands, and that, at scale, our margins will improve. We will therefore continue to invest relentlessly in our product and marketing initiatives to accelerate reach.”

Spotify provides great music services, with its personalized playlists and awesome weekly Discover playlist that caters to individual listeners’ interests while allowing them to explore new genres and artists as well. Profit is a small part of the story, but Spotify’s goal and future potential is a bigger and more interesting part.

I believe in the company’s goal to make music more accessible and its ability to expand its economic prospects.

Jenny Dao ’17 (dao@stolaf.edu) is from Vung Tau, Vietnam. She majors in economics and political science.

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote

Factory automation tax unnecessary

In a recent interview with news website “Quartz,” Bill Gates offered a rather unconventional approach to the growing use of robots in factories, asserting that robots who replace human workers should incur the same tax rates as the human workers’ income taxes would have incurred.

According to Gates, “Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

Gates proposed that taxing robots could help slow the rate of automation and the replacement of human workers, funding other types of employment in the process. The danger of automation lies in the fact that the displacement of human workers will exacerbate income inequality in the United States.

Gates offered two compelling points to back up this controversial argument. First, that the automation of production will soon become dominant and will eventually be the main source of worker displacement. He proposed that market forces alone will not be enough to sustain the wellbeing of society, especially if increasingly more people are unemployed. Taxation on robots is the most appropriate approach to this inevitable transition. Second, Gates asserts that the overall perception of technology replacement has been a negative one, and if technology replacement continues its fast encroachment in the manufacturing industries neither the producers nor the workers will be pleased. The fear of innovation and change is nothing new, and according to Gates it’s not necessarily a bad thing to actively limit change that has the potential to have negative consequences. In short, Gates believes that government intervention through taxation is necessary, because while automation benefits companies through more efficient and cheaper labor, workers suffer the consequences.

However, this proposal for more taxation within the manufacturing industry raises concerns about where to draw the line when it comes to governmental intervention. Gates seems to have mistaken production tax for income tax. Although robots do the same work that human workers do, robots do not earn any income. The tax imposed on robots is tax on production. On the other hand, the government can tax the income of the worker through income tax and the consumption of the worker through sales tax, but they have never imposed a production tax on humans. The logic is simple: a tax on production can easily become a disincentivizing factor that reduces productivity and impedes growth.

Moreover, defining which machines are replacing humans and which machines are necessary for production is far too complicated. In an era where there are word generators that write news articles, self-checkout machines at every big chain store and artificial intelligence machines that detect fraud in transactions, how do we decide which “robots” should be taxed? The task of deciding the definition for “taxable robots” alone represents potential government interference in the economy.

Humans are generally apt with resource allocation. When there are too few unskilled job opportunities in manufacturing sectors, people will opt to work in other sectors that require a higher level of human creativity. Automation can mean that humans are freed of strenuous labor and can pursue careers that require critical thinking and meaningful human interaction.

Gates’ proposal to tax robots is a valuable idea that has sparked conversation and further consideration of what rapid automation could mean for human welfare and the economy. However, the idea itself could pose many underlying dangers regarding governmental control of the economy.

Perhaps there is another way to look at our current rate of “technological unemployment,” a positive view of automation that John Maynard Keynes offers in his article “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930).” When robots and machines are the main labor force in the manufacturing sectors, humans will have leisure time that they can spend on pursuing activities that are intellectually and mentally fulfilling such as writing novels, enjoying meaningful human interactions and exploring the world.

The adoption of machines in production is nothing new. Throughout history, humankind has observed horses replaced by cars, the introduction of steam power and the revolution of the textile industry. Automation can provide humans with more opportunities to pursue their dreams with fewer obstacles such as the need to make money, a luxury that many cannot afford.

Jenny Dao ’17 (dao@stolaf.edu) is from Vung Tao, Vietnam. She majors in economics and political science.

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote

New app enables surface level communication

In the fast pace of 21st century life, most people simply do not have enough time to return texts or phone calls. They are easily sucked into the all-consuming vortex of work and other activities which do not allow people enough time to express their appreciation for their loved ones.

“Thoughts” emerged as an app that allows for easier communication, created to compensate for this lack of free time many people experience. With one click, “Thoughts” enables users to let others know that they are thinking of them by sending an emoji that communicates their feelings.

When you open the app, smiling faces of your friends and family appear on a blue backdrop. If you click on one of your loved ones, you are able to choose one of 11 expressions to quickly relay a message to that person. Your friend or family member immediately receives the expression, and they are made aware that although you do not have time for a lengthy conversation with them, you are thinking about them.

The app is extremely convenient for busy people who wish to stay in touch with each other because communication is made as simple as one click. This app doesn’t involve wracking your brain to think of what to say, or feeling nervous when you open a message because you will have to come up with a response.

While “Thoughts” makes it possible to maintain relationships through emojis, the ease of this communication app comes at a price.

In the progression of communication platforms, from in-person, to phone calls, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other forms of social media, each new iteration is a lesser form of interpersonal connection. With the introduction of each new communication platform, users take another step away from each other and toward their screens. It is undeniable that we seem to have lost a sense of intimacy with each other, as we are now able to talk to people who aren’t in the same place as us, whenever we want.

Life is easier when we don’t have to coordinate around other people’s schedules in order to talk to them, but interpersonal connections are being buried beneath the convenience of a text or Facebook message. People seem to have forgotten that the point of communication is to connect with others. Oftentimes, this involves more than a simple expression or phrase. This app is further enabling surface level communication, making deeper conversations entirely avoidable.

There is no denying that technological developments in communication have brought serious advantages. People living far away from their families are now able to talk to each other on a daily basis, and people can easily contact others in ways that were not possible just a decade ago.

“Thoughts” is not the first app, and definitely won’t be the last, to offer a simplified form of communication. But with an overabundance of communication methods, the app seems slightly redundant and is unable to contribute to meaningful interactions between people – meaningful interactions that most of us have lost and are trying to regain.

Jenny Dao ’17 (dao@stolaf.edu) is from Vung Tau, Vietnam. She majors in economics and political science.

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote

Mars colonization is worth the price

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, recently announced his plan for putting humans on Mars. It has received mixed reactions from both academics and the public. Many people claim that this plan for colonizing Mars is too ambitious, while others are excited for a huge scientific breakthrough.

Musk is fully aware of the financial hurdle between his plan and its realization – he estimated the cost of a new rocket to be $10 billion. SpaceX is currently providing for the project development costs, investing tens of millions in the process per year. However, it has been said that funding will soon be outsourced to a public-private partnership.

If everything goes according to plan, the rocket will begin its flight to Mars as early as 2024. The first passengers will pay $500,000 for a ticket, with the cost rumored to decline as more and more people leave Earth. According to Musk, the rocket will transfer 100 passengers every 26 months when Earth and Mars are closest to each other. This consistent delivery of people to Mars is necessary to sustain life on the foreign planet.

Despite some hesitation from the public, Musk’s most recent speech on the project in July spurred a frenzy among the audience, igniting the excitement for another leap in scientific progress. The idea of spacefaring comes from the belief that Earth will inevitably become uninhabitable, either due to an asteroid strike or pollution from humans.

Some critics of Musk’s project maintained that it is too early to consider the idea of evacuating Earth and that the amount of funding required for the project is too enormous considering the multitude of issues that already exist on our planet.

Personally, these critics’ arguments are not convincing as they favor impeding scientific progress due to concerns surrounding current political and social issues. I understand that people have different priorities, but using concerns for current political events to override the potential for scientific advancement is not only irrelevant, but also harmful to human development in the long run. Pessimistic responses to Musk’s idea do not outweigh the meaningful impacts behind his proposal.

Musk himself was probably ready for negative feedback before presenting his project to the public. Scientific progress in human history has consistently encountered pushback of some kind. People who are afraid of changing and adapting to new lifestyles will certainly try to deny the necessity and significance of innovation. That being said, significant scientific breakthroughs have never stopped due to push-back or opposition of the public.

On the other hand, Musk’s plan was warmly welcomed by optimists who strongly believe in humans’ ability and a brighter future for everyone. I am an optimist who is confident in human creativity and intelligence. I have faith in Musk’s plan for developing an interplanetary lifestyle and sustaining a human presence on Mars.

If Musk’s idea becomes a reality, the human race will depart from its conventional scientific outlook and also from the Earth once and for all. Even if his plan fails, the idea still provides a strong springboard for future spacefaring aspirations. Musk should be respected not only for his bold ideas but also for his willingness to sacrifice his fortune for long-term human benefit.

NASA expressed its approval of Musk’s project, writing, “NASA applauds all those who want to take the next giant leap – and advance the journey to Mars. We are very pleased that the global community is working to meet the challenges of a sustainable human presence on Mars. This journey will require the best and the brightest minds from government and industry, and the fact that Mars is a major topic of discussion is very encouraging.”

The biggest question for SpaceX right now is how to fund the project and to make it a reality in approximately six years. Nevertheless, whether or not Musk’s rocket takes off in six years, his project’s potential encourages human aspiration for interplanetary life and establishes a launching point for future scientific breakthroughs.

Jenny Dao ’17 (dao@stolaf.edu) is from Vung Tau, Vietnam. She majors in economics and political science.

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Proposed SGA Constitution changes put to the vote