The latest curator on Spotify is Billy Bragg, who announced plans this morning for a series of ‘talking playlist’ radio shows distributed through the streaming music service.
The first goes live tomorrow: a collection of 14 tracks and Bragg’s spoken-word explanations of what they are and why he picked them, with new shows to follow at monthly intervals.
Talking to Music Ally, Bragg said the project initially came from discussions around putting out his new album on Cooking Vinyl, when the label’s digital team suggested he make some Spotify playlists of his favourite tracks.
“I thought ‘bugger me, this seems like another load of work’, it’s like doing bloody homework!” says Bragg. But as he put together half a dozen playlists, it made him want to get to grips with the streaming service a bit more.
“I hate technology coming along that I’m on that I don’t understand. I remember when my first DVD came out, and I didn’t even have a DVD player at the time. So I started engaging with Spotify a little bit, and thinking that while it’s a great way to access music, you don’t get much other than just the music,” he says.
“I’m someone who likes to know a little bit more: who wrote the songs, when the song was made… Maybe I’m an old geezer in wanting that context!”
Bragg tells the tale of digging out some old boogie-woogie records from his basement recently – the fruits of being in the right place at the right time in an East Ham junk shop a few years ago, with artists like Cow Cow Davenport and Louisiana Red – and then discovering that they were all on Spotify.
“This to me is really really interesting. There seems to be a lot of this music on Spotify, so I think there’s a space in the streaming universe for someone to use this resource to introduce younger listeners into this great old music,” he says.
Bragg’s ex-manager, Pete Jenner, had apparently been suggesting for a while that he make his own radio show to distribute online, playing some of these tracks. “We got a little bit foxed about how to get the rights and how to pay the artists,” he says. “Until Spotify came along, I wasn’t able to work out how to do it. But then we thought if I could just record MP3s into GarageBand on my desktop, and send them to Spotify, they could ingest them in, string them together and make them into a radio playlist.”
This idea has been tried before, although it didn’t quite take off at the time. UK-based music distributor Kudos Records launched a service called Playdio in 2010, intermingling songs with DJ’s spoken-word intros in Spotify playlists. It’s surprising that nobody else has had a crack at the idea until now.
Bragg will earn royalties from the spoken-word tracks – an interesting business model for curators on streaming services – but says the talking is about much more than money.
“It’s the context of the songs, and why I appreciated them. I always like to hear DJs enthusing on the radio for the same reason: that’s a service you get off 6Music with someone like John Cooper Clarke, who was DJing at the weekend. His enthusiasm sparks my enthusiasm,” he says.
“The digitisation of music has made music much more accessible, but what we’ve lost a bit is the filters, like John Peel. The great thing about him was you’d listen in, and half of it was godawful, but half of it was amazing and would change your life. That’s what’s needed on streaming services.”
Bragg has already recorded his first few Spotify shows, which he says will include a mixture of old gems and contemporary songs that have caught his interest.
“Some of it you just bump into. Like Junior Parker, who recorded Mystery Train before Elvis Presley. In the 1970s, he did this really weird strung-out soul version of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, which is really weird – almost like ‘Marvin Gaye Sings The Beatles’,” he says. “The idea that Junior Parker, who had this rocking R&B career and then went on to do this… that’s the sort of thing I’m trying to do.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s followed Bragg’s career that he’s very keen on the fact that artists (or their descendants, of course) get paid for the plays on his new show. Given the backdrop of a year or more of some artists criticising Spotify – and streaming in general – for its impact on musicians’ income, it’s a subject worth discussing.
“To me, it’s a very important thing. It’s becoming harder to make a living through selling records, but as other means of income for artists start to come online, we should be engaging with them rather than trying to hold them back,” says Bragg, although he makes it clear he’s not criticising any specific artists for their views.
“I’ve read a lot of the reports of artists who have spoken in opposition to Spotify, and I can’t really find much objection other than that they don’t seem to like streaming. To me, that doesn’t make sense: it’s not down to us to like it or not. If people are finding that a convenient way to listen to music, and if there is potential for artists to get paid, I think we should be engaging with that rather than turning our back on it.”
Bragg has already spoken out in Spotify’s defence in recent months, suggesting in November that artists should be asking their labels pointed questions about their streaming payouts, rather than attacking the services.
“If there are low rates of remuneration on Spotify – and they are low compared to what we got from selling records – if we are going to talk about those things, let’s be frank about where the problem lies. Let’s not attack the platform: they’re making a lot of money, but they’re paying out a lot of money too,” he says.
“It’s where the money is going to: the people who are collectively referred to as the rightsholders. If artists are rightly going to talk about the lack of money that’s getting to artists from digital – and it’s not just about streaming, it’s about all digital income – then we need to talk about how we speak to the rightsholders and get a fair deal.”
For Bragg, the debate needs to move on from simply dividing musicians by whether they’re pro or anti Spotify. “There is money to be made there: alright, maybe not the millions that some artists made in the 20th century, but it’s still the difference between sucking up a shitty day job and being able to make a living as a musician,” he says.
“That’s why I’m angry about this thing. I’m not trying to pick a fight with other artists over Spotify. I’m saying to young artists ‘don’t sign your rights away’. I see some things that artists write – particularly artists who made really good money in the old days – that sound a bit ‘poor pitiful me!’. Our real concern should be young artists coming in, and how they’re going to make a living. Streaming can play a part in that. We should be saying to the rightsholders that we need a new business model that supports artists.”
Bragg praises the growing number of independent labels who’ve spoken out about their policies of splitting digital revenues 50/50 with artists, while the label his new album is coming out on – Cooking Vinyl – has been one of the trailblazers in the area of ‘artist service’ deals, where artists retain their rights.
“I always advise artists to retain their rights,” he says. “We live longer, and our careers run longer: I own my rights, and there’s every chance of me being able to continue doing this in my 60s and 70s as a result. I’m still making a living, and that suggests you can keep a career going!”
The interview draws to a close with a discussion of YouTube – which caught a lot of flak at the recent Midem industry conference from artists and labels alike – and how it compares to Spotify and other streaming audio services from an artist’s perspective.
“If we’re going to speak out about the paucity of payment from streaming services, if we’re pissed off at Spotify, we should be marching to YouTube Central with flaming pitchforks! Not to mention the acquiescence of the industry, which I feel is really disturbing,” said Bragg earlier in the conversation. Later, I tell him about YouTube execs getting heckled during Midem sessions, and ask him to expand on his views.
“I’d rather the industry was heckling YouTube than picking on kids downloading my music. If the shift is that the industry’s anger has moved from kids enjoying music to multi-national corporations making billions of dollars, I’m 100% behind that. That’s where the problem is,” he says.
“Somebody’s making a lot of money out of distributing music. Our problem is that the deals rightsholders will subsequently do with those corporations like YouTube will undoubtedly be covered with non-disclosure agreements, and we are unable to see what the deals are, how they’re benefitting.”
He continues: “In the old days, the industry was scrabbling around trying to stop kids downloading stuff because they were losing money. Now they’re still losing money, but YouTube are making money, so their attention is bound to go that way. Let’s hope that in the whole process, artists have enough opportunities to put their voice in, so we can get a fair deal from rightsholders.”