I disagree with David Byrne and his Spotify stance
Society, systems, music and markets
It feels strange to sit down and begin writing a rebuttal to the declamation of a musician who I really admire. David Byrne wrote an article last week for the Guardian titled, The Internet Will Suck All Creative Content Out Of The World, in which he states “I’ve pulled as much of my catalogue from Spotify as I can.” Thom Yorke has made similar statements and has removed the catalog of his band Atoms For Peace from Spotify too. In that interview I link to he says “[...] what’s happening in the mainstream is the last gasp of the old industry. Once that does finally die, which it will, something else will happen.” He says this without apparent irony given that “something else” is already happening now and he’s complaining about it. He also took things a bit further with a stronger comment in a Mexican interview, where he says of the music business “This is is like the last fart, the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” Ok then.
What we have here are two bold statements from two bold-faced musicians who want to save musicians and a so-called dying music industry and yet, for all of their best intentions, I believe they are doing music and musicians a disservice. What I have seen so far, is that when articles such as the one by Mr. Byrne are published there tends to not be a counterpoint provided, by in this case the Guardian newspaper, or any other publications that carry these articles. And of course, as the articles are shared far and wide across the apparently much-hated Web, they become gospel to those who read them and unfortunately become quasi-religious texts to musicians of all stripes who blame the Internet for everything that is wrong with their careers.
Here’s my take which I will try to make as succinct as possible: The Internet and Spotify (or any other streaming music service for that matter,) are not to blame for musician’s problems. It is hard for me to understand why intelligent men like David Byrne and Thom Yorke, along with David Lowery, do not appear to understand that we are in the midst of new markets being formed. I would also add that many journalists and media commentators don’t understand this phenomenon either. It is not about technology; it’s about systems and societal shifts. It’s also about music business bubbles. I must also point out that I have been wrong in my thinking and writing about Spotify in the past. After much debate and a reappraisal of my own stance, I have concluded that we can only look to what Internet and mobile users are doing or want to do, and then note how their actions drive technologists to provide platforms for them. Put very simply, that is how markets work.
I have written often that the Internet has brought major change to society, culture and business, so often in fact that I am beginning to sound like a broken record – pun intended. Musicians are the one’s apparently complaining the loudest if we are to believe what we read, although those who represent their complaints have never provided real evidence that there are literally thousands of musicians waiting to storm the supposed barriers of inequality. And yet, when we look to other industries that the Internet flattened, it is hard to find many articles written in defense of say Mom and Pop Travel Agencies who had to adapt to competition from websites like Expedia, or go out of business. And one only has to look at the comments section of Mr Byrne’s article to see how a vast majority of Guardian readers feel about the issues he tells us of (I’ll let you read them, it’s not pretty…)
To be fair Mr. Byrne makes some good points, and I agree with him regarding the click through to buy a song after hearing it on Spotify – why would a user do that? But he conflates issues when he talks about the Internet and “fairness,” just as that other defender of musicians against the Internet, David Lowery, continues to search longingly for an “ethical Internet.” And does Mr. Byrne really believe that the Internet will suck all creative content out of the world? Surely that can’t be true, especially as the Internet allows for everyone to be a creator these days.
So should the recording industry be saved and do musicians need saving? And note that I say recording industry, not the music industry – they are two different things. I have no interest in saving the recording industry in its current form. The recording industry was set up to exploit musicians. It pays low royalties to musicians for sales of their work in return for providing money to musicians so they can record their work. There are multiple examples of different models within this system – but that is the system as it stands. Me and other musicians have often said that ‘we pay back the mortgage but never own the house’ under this system. What that means is that when a musician signs away their rights to their work they hardly ever get those rights back. The way to avoid being trapped in this system is simple – retain the rights to your copyrights. Those copyrights are a tangible good that a musician should own.
In a changing marketplace musicians will benefit from this. Mr Byrne rightly points out that musicians get low royalties from plays on streaming music services. This is because they signed binding contracts with the labels. The labels usually consider an arrangement with a streaming music service as a license. Whenever a label licenses their music catalog to any entity – TV, Film, iTunes, Spotify et al – it takes a 50% charge off the top. The label keeps 50% in other words and musicians get to split the rest. There are different arrangements; some labels pay the artist whatever the agreed recording royalty is, which can typically be 15-25% depending on the deal, and iTunes tends to be treated in the latter manner. Whatever the various deal arrangements this is the system working under the terms of the contracts that musicians signed. And have musicians ever stopped to think that when music fans don’t stream their music in these services, they then get less royalties than Taylor Swift who is streamed a lot? Does anyone think that the 16 year-old Lorde is having sleepless nights over this?
How is this then Spotify’s fault? I argue that it isn’t and I will return to that in a moment.
Let me give you some quick examples of how the Internet disrupted certain markets and what happened to companies who didn’t pay attention to that simple fact.
Despite the societal changes apparent to anyone who owned a digital camera or currently owns an iPhone, companies like Kodak, Polaroid and BlackBerry simply continued to double-down on their efforts to combat change. And by change I mean combat what people were actually doing – they no longer used cameras that required film, they no longer wanted Polaroids nor did the BlackBerry remain the telecommunicating device of choice. This was not fantasy, it was fact. The results of people’s buying actions clearly showed that when they switched to products they preferred, discarding what they considered less useful products, then marketplaces changed. Kodak is in bankruptcy, Polaroid is struggling to be relevant, and BlackBerry has put itself up for sale after plunging from an 80% market share. Let’s not forget that the iPhone arrived in June 2007. It did not exist prior to that. It completely disrupted the marketplace for smartphones just as the iPod before it had become the Walkman for a new generation. Apple created a new marketplace for music.
Back to Spotify. It is not hyperbole to suggest that this generation’s music fans want to rent their music, not own it. Spotify may not have created that shift but they certainly provided a solution to easy access, mobile music streaming. They simply saw consumer demand, just as any company in any marketplace could determine. I am certain that Spotify would want every single music fan on their service to pay the monthly subscription, but is it their fault if we choose not to do that and listen to the ad-supported version instead? Is it HBO’s fault that I chose to cancel my Comcast cable TV account years ago? No. I hate the lack of programming choice within Comcast’s cable system. That is what this generation’s music fans are doing when using streaming services – choosing to create their own programming. Instead of complaining about Comcast I simply found other ways, yes via the Internet, to access programs that I enjoy. And how many musicians out there in the world use Spotify’s service by the way? I’d bet there are many. And also why do Mr. Byrne and Mr. Yorke single out Spotify in their arguments? Why not go after YouTube? Is it really all about money?
And yes, using the Spotify service creates a quandary for many creators. My friend Rick Moody confessed to me that he feels queasy when he uses Spotify. Is that because as a talented and well-regarded author and musician, he is siding subconsciously with musicians while trying to deny how much he enjoys the convenience of Spotify’s service? I believe so. And I wonder – do many musicians and creators feel queasy when they listen to FM radio? An ad-supported service that is free to listen to and pays out royalties to music publishers based on radio play – ie, the more artists are played the more they get paid.
One thing is certain: When artists remove their music from Spotify they are simply ensuring that they will receive zero royalties from that service. They will also ensure that they are not in a service that provides massive distribution of their work that is not a walled garden like FM radio is. And remember, not all artists are popular therefore not all artists receive the same amount of royalties from airplay or from streaming services. It is worth noting that Spotify has one billion playlists created by users. Musicians are not the only creators. Internet users most likely make far more content to post to the Web for free than all musicians combined. It’s a societal phenomenon that can’t be denied. Musicians must look to where society is headed now and supply music through the channels that their fans are using (and yes, we musicians used to be on the bleeding edge of culture and society leading the charge… no longer it seems, as we are reduced to being mere commentators, myself included.) Don’t expect young people to change their habits anytime soon.
And as for the question about how musicians should be compensated, what exactly do Mr. Byrne and Mr. Yorke expect Spotify to do? The company has already paid out in excess of $500 million in royalties, a sum that makes up 70% of the company’s revenue. Should they be expected to pay out even more than 70% in royalties?
Mr. Byrne recommends that musicians may want to take pause before jumping in, quoting Mr. Lowery – “there’s no reason artists should simply accept the terms and join up with whatever new technology comes along.” That’s a fair point, but you can’t not join up if you have a contract with a label, but have they both taken pause themselves and asked if Spotify might be on the same side as musicians where the common enemy could be considered the broad devaluation of art in general, and that Spotify has at least created a system where people actually pay for music? After all, musicians seem to be constantly complaining that *everyone* is stealing music (a complaint that I don’t agree with.)
Clay Shirky has written, in response to people who said the Internet is destroying print, books, newspapers etc, that “…the Internet is the largest group of people who care about reading and writing ever assembled in history.” And that is true. Now consider that more people on the planet have more access to music than ever before. Then consider that your average music consumer used to buy about six CDs a year. Then consider that Spotify has users who pay $120 a year in subscriptions, of which 70% is paid out to music labels. That is money that might be considered “found” money, money that didn’t exist before streaming services kicked in. Like I said, if a musician decides against being in a music streaming service then their royalties are zero.
I also believe we need far more transparency around the organizations that purport to represent artists in this grand debate. Mr. Byrne points us in his article to the Content Creators Coalition. Does anyone else see the irony in how this organization is reaching out to creators? Via a zero-barrier entry to the much-maligned Web. And who are the people who make up this organization, who say they want a coalition of creators, creators who appear to be determined as only “musicians, writers and audio-visual artists”? If Mr Byrne is concerned about giving away personal information on the Web, why does he point me to a site that demands my email address for entry, a website that does not share the names and professions of those people behind the site? There is only this statement – “A dedicated group of artists, creators, and stakeholders are forming a new and unprecedented coalition” – but who are they, what’s their real agenda? Who is going to shake me down if I don’t agree with their methods? Transparency would be a great start.
Do we musicians require an organization such as the Content Creators Coalition? I think not. We need less one-sided articles and more education about what is actually happening in society and culture today. As George Orwell wrote – “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Whatever has been happening to music has been in front of our noses for the last two decades. Popular music used to be one of the leading edges of popular culture, but now as each new generation embraces it we find that what Sol LeWitt said many years ago is so evidently true, if not more so – “every generation renews itself in its own way; there is always a reaction against whatever is standard.”
What we are then left with, finally, is that this debate will continue for some time. At its heart it is about the musician’s place in the marketplace once they joined the business of music. It is about remuneration based on the weak term “fairness.” Technology created the platforms that musicians must now contend with, and let’s be clear here, many have come to grips with those platforms and are having great success reaching their audiences, because their audiences use these platforms. So it is not *all musicians* complaining about this spurious “unfairness.”
It is time for influential musicians to openly and transparently convene and produce real solutions to real problems that will help musicians understand what is really going on. A debate in online media about online media is a dead end.
Meanwhile, appearing to be elitist and Luddite is not a good way to win over today’s music fans to one’s cause; let’s leave that to be the historical legacy of the RIAA.
Recent articles regarding music and technology:
An interview in the New Yorker by Sasha Frere-Jones with Damon Krukowski, Jace Clayton aka DJ Rupture and me.
On Thom Yorke and Spotify
Me and Rick Moody discuss the music distribution problem
An essay for the Oregon Humanities magazine – In search of an ethical Internet