David Byrne Attacks Spotify’s Grip on Our Future

Image via Getty Images / Juan Naharro Gimenez

Image via Getty Images / Juan Naharro Gimenez

For those of you who thought the mythological battle over our streaming future was done, you were dead wrong. Yesterday another titan joined the battle against Spotify et al., in the form of David Byrne. Byrne’s op-ed in The Guardian questions the sustainability of the streaming business model for artists. He sees a future where emerging artists will suffer tremendously if streaming becomes the dominant form of music consumption. There’s just not enough money in it for them to ensure survival. Though we’ve heard similar opinions over the past few months from the likes of Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrichwho took to Tumblr today to criticize a recent pro-file-sharing study—Byrne lays it out in a more succinct and cogent way than we’ve previously heard. He also pushes further and questions the entire notion of on-demand streaming services like Spotify as a “discovery” tool. Why would you exit Spotify, go to iTunes, pay 99 cents, and listen to the same damn song you were already listening to? Why indeed.

Read Byrne’s best points below, and read the full op-ed on The Guardian here.

On monopolies
My guess is that, as with most web-based businesses, only one will be left standing in the end. There aren’t two Facebooks or Amazons. Domination and monopoly is the name of the game in the web marketplace.

On the business model
The amounts these services pay per stream is miniscule – their idea being that if enough people use the service those tiny grains of sand will pile up. Domination and ubiquity are therefore to be encouraged. We should readjust our values because in the web-based world we are told that monopoly is good for us.

On the numbers
For a band of four people that makes a 15% royalty from Spotify streams, it would take 236,549,020 streams for each person to earn a minimum wage of $15,080 (£9,435) a year.

On the discovery fallacy
I’d be even more curious if the folks who “discover” music on these services then go on to purchase it. Why would you click and go elsewhere and pay when the free version is sitting right in front of you? Am I crazy?

On who is actually going to get rich
Musicians are increasingly suspicious of the money and equity changing hands between these services and record labels – both money and equity has been exchanged based on content and assets that artists produced but seem to have no say over. Spotify gave $500m in advances to major labels in the US for the right to license their catalogues. That was an “advance” against income – so theoretically it’s not the labels’ money to pocket. Another chunk of change is soon to follow. The labels also got equity; so they are now partners and shareholders in Spotify, which is valued at around $3bn. That income from equity, when and if the service goes public, does not have to be shared with the artists. It seems obvious that some people are making a lot of money on this deal, while the artists have been left with meagre scraps.

On sustainability in art
Musicians might, for now, challenge the major labels and get a fairer deal than 15% of a pittance, but it seems to me that the whole model is unsustainable as a means of supporting creative work of any kind. Not just music. The inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left. Writers, for example, can’t rely on making money from live performances – what are they supposed to do? Write ad copy?

On the future
A culture of blockbusters is sad, and ultimately it’s bad for business. That’s not the world that inspired me when I was younger. Many a fan (myself included) has said that ‘music saved my life’, so there must be some incentive to keep that lifesaver available for future generations.

  • Jaxon Lee

    He makes some valid points but the genie is out of the bottle. I don’t think there is any going back.

    Consider this though. I love Google’s music streaming service, but what is to stop a group from releasing an EP for streaming and then selling the entire album on their own website? If I liked the group, I would buy the album, add it to my Google Music streaming library and go on with life. For music I love and really want to keep, I buy it. For stuff I enjoy, but don’t want to keep, I just stream. I think Byrne needs to understand there are two sides to the equation: artist AND consumer. If you constrain legal avenues to consumption, it gives rise to piracy and the artist arguably loses again. And with the speed and ease of current Internet technologies, piracy is all too easy.

    I think the burden is on artists to innovate. What new experiences can they create leveraging the Internet? How can they create value? If people like Byrne keep thinking about the dilemma in the context of a forty year old sales paradigm, then artists WILL continue to lose because streaming will only continue to grow.

    Oh and he fails to mention that streaming isn’t actually turning a profit for anyone. Millions of dollars are changing hands but no one is profiting. The market needs innovation here.

  • Devin Middleton

    I think 1 major solution is to have more control over your work. We’ve seen so many artist in recent years do everything with a small team of people. Major labels are unnecessary and theres no reason an artist/band should only own 15% of their work’s royalties when they could do the work the label is doing, and hire a producer and find distribution themselves. Musicians are losing money b/c the percentage they take away from their music is already very small, and taking away even 1 part that fuels their income pretty much shaves away a large portion of their profits. The independent route seems to be the safest standard in 2013 and onward. Major labels are losing money and shutting down and downsizing their staff everyday b/c they have no clue what theyre doing anymore, and fighting the internet is not working, so they bleed everything they can out of their artist to break even and now that’s failing.

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