David Byrne speaks out again on artists’ survival in the streaming music era


david-byrneThe ‘artists and streaming’ debate – or as it often boils down, ‘artists v Spotify’ – is frustratingly polarised. Thom Yorke’s an idiot! Daniel Ek is a tech bogeyman! David Byrne’s a luddite! Dave Allen’s a traitor! And so on. Anyone who speaks their mind gets a barrel-load of abuse.

In truth, this isn’t a black and white debate. You can agree with some of Yorke and Byrne’s points while disagreeing with others, or hold the view that streaming will ultimately be a good thing for artists while acknowledging the reasons why a number of musicians remain unconvinced. This is a complex and important debate – too important to be turned into a shouting match.

So, David Byrne. Emphatically not a luddite – if you’re in any doubt about that, read his book – but he does have serious concerns about what the business model AND the cultural shifts involved with streaming will mean for musicians. He’s set out his fears before in an op-ed piece for The Guardian, but now he has returned to the theme on his own site.

Yes, it’s long. Read it anyway. It’s as good a primer as we’ve seen on why a number of artists have severe misgivings about Spotify, YouTube and other access-based music services, and important as part of the roadmap that hopefully leads to artist-friendlier streaming in the future. Even if you don’t agree with every point he makes.

“Consumers and businesses that cater to their demands don’t often take the long view; they’ve been known to overfish huge swaths of the oceans, spill oil over and over, chop down all the trees in a forest and then wonder why the topsoil that would support reforesting has washed away,” writes Byrne. “So, I wonder similarly if streaming-on-demand might be similarly a business model that will deplete the resource—we who create music—that it depends upon. Many industries have depleted the resources they depend on, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before.”

Rather than just summarise his views – did I mention you should read his post in full? – here are some thoughts in response to it:

1. Byrne isn’t keen on arguments that recorded music is dead

Specifically, he criticises the pro-streaming argument that “recorded music—and especially the idea of making money from it—is so 20th century. Suck it up and move on”. I’ve heard this said at technology and music conferences alike: it’s a real point of view, not a straw man – and Byrne characterises it as just one of the arguments he’s heard against his thinking. But I’m not so sure it’s a mainstream view even among people who are pro-streaming.

The argument of streaming services is that when they get big enough, they’ll be providing meaningful income for artists from recorded music. But even if you question that prospect, I’m not so sure ‘making money from recorded music’ is going to be just about streaming in the future.

So, vinyl – tiny in the context of overall sales, but enjoying a resurgence – and box-sets and Bandcamp (busily building a community of fans around the idea of paying for music by artists they love) and Kickstarter or Pledge Music – the majority of music-focused crowdfunding is about the promise of recorded music, surely? Fans pledging to help an album or project happen, to bring that music into being.

In my mind, the question is why can’t streaming music be fuelling all this: acting as a funnel to these other places where artists are building an income around their recorded music? Spotify shows merchandise and ticket listings, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t let me know that the artist it knows I like (because it knows how much I streamed their last album) is raising money to make the next.

There’s also no reason why it couldn’t tell me about the beautiful vinyl special-edition of the album I’ve streamed six times this week, or allow the artist I’m following to message me with a polite request that I may like to buy their new EP (with some exclusive not-on-Spotify tracks) from their Bandcamp page. It doesn’t feel like sales and streams have to be mutually exclusive, but there’s a lot more work to be done to figure out how, and how valuable this might be.

2. Byrne deals with the ‘old fart’ issue

In his piece, he tackles the notion that “all technology unleashed on the world is progress, and therefore unstoppable, and we shouldn’t fight it or complain”, and suggests that this view characterises people like him as “an old fart who can’t or won’t adapt”.

And he suggests that the problem here is that if artists are losing out from streaming: “The current model wouldn’t seem to be sustainable: the content will run out eventually… on-demand streaming in its present model is like a better, cheaper, faster food distribution network that not only eliminates small delis and grocery stores, but eliminates the farmers as well.”

This is a great unknown, and I don’t think it should be brushed under the carpet. The traditional response to artists as established as Byrne and Thom Yorke complaining is to snark that they’ll still be fine, with their big back catalogues and hits. But it’s an important point: what artists might we be losing, if they don’t see a way to make money from streaming?

3. Byrne picks at the the claim that as streaming scales, it pays off more for artists

He does a good job – including quoting Music Ally, thanks! – of explaining why Sweden is a bit more complex as a music market than simply ‘streams up, overall revenue up, w00t!’ pointing to the threats of lawsuits from the local Musicians Union against labels over streaming royalties.

“This is a pretty big issue—are the labels who are in league with Spotify and the like keeping way too much of the payments for themselves?” he wonders. Which is where I quibble. “In league with” feels like quite a loaded phrase, and not just because it brings to mind “in league with the devil”. But the main question does need to be asked: is it the label-artist relationship that we should be scrutinising more closely here?

Billy Bragg made this point more clearly recently, following on from previous comments about the potential lawsuits in Sweden. “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 told Music Ally in February this year.

“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.”

There are already lawsuits about how some labels shared the revenues from iTunes sales with artists – the sale or licence argument – so bad deals aren’t a streaming phenomenon. Dispiritingly, the history of ‘artists and bad deals’ stretches back pretty much to the beginning of the recorded music industry. Which isn’t a reason to accept it: the optimist in me hopes that streaming can actually bring more transparency to this area, and help artists out of bad deals and into better ones.

This very point is also made by Byrne. “Streaming services hold valuable data on fan and consumer behavior that would be beneficial to labels and artists in order to market recordings, sell concert tickets and identify where they are strong,” he writes. Later in the piece, he suggests that artists should get 50% of the money streaming services pay labels, and reports that Warner Bros (which controls many of Byrne’s older recordings) has modified its split to 50/50. Labels like Beggars Group have also gone public with their 50/50 split.

4. Byrne is worried about whether streaming will ever be a long tail phenomena.

“I seriously doubt if most subscribers are using their freedom to explore and seriously check out artists they’ve never heard of. I’m not sure the obscure artists on the end of tail will benefit and the tail will grow longer and more even. More likely the handful big names get checked out by a wider variety of folks,” he writes.

“The democratization seems to imply that folks will indeed check out a wider variety of artists—but within a pretty proscribed pile, is what I expect. As a result the income from streaming services is spread around a bit more, and there is definitely more music to check out than ever. That is indeed good news… and it is good that some who might have been left out given the formerly limited discretionary funds now receive a trickle. But it also seems that the spreading out will mean that no one except the big names will ever get enough to make a living (from their recordings).”

This is another really important question, and there have been mixed messages so far. “According to Merlin’s members, the demand for independent repertoire on premium subscription tiers is already eclipsing their share of the wider digital market,” said Merlin boss Charles Caldas in February. “Our market share is a lot higher on Spotify than it was in physical. The internet and the whole online distribution and sharing of information has really helped level the playing field,” said Cooking Vinyl’s Martin Goldschmidt at the Midem conference the same month.

Yet industry analyst Mark Mulligan has published research suggesting that digital music services (not just streaming but downloads too) may be fuelling a “superstar artist economy” where the top 1% of musical works are now accounting for 77% of artist revenues. “Superstar streaming and subscription artist revenue totaled $300 million in 2013, compared to $90 million for the remainder,” claimed Mulligan’s recent report. “Crucially the $300 million is a larger amount of income shared among a smaller number of artists making the effect doubly impactful.”

As I said, mixed messages. Why are a number of prominent labels so positive about streaming’s impact on the market share of independent music and artists, if streaming is creating a superstar economy? More research is needed here, but also more innovation, I think – clever music AND tech people thinking about better ways to introduce people to artists they’ve never heard of. Perhaps the key is not to make them “explore” – to bring that music to them instead, in an accessible way.

5. Byrne worries that scale means monopoly

Here’s another example of a valuable point that should provoke a proper debate: if streaming has to get big and global to pay off for artists, how many companies can succeed?

“If scale is what will ultimately make these services sustainable for artists, then are we being asked to endorse a monopoly? It seems that way. Right now a few on-demand streaming services are battling it out—YouTube/Google, Apple, Spotify, Beats—but can multiple services co-exist?” he asks (note: Apple is on-demand download sales only for now, but its iTunes Radio offers personal radio streams). “If a few companies could co-exist that might be a good thing; not just for artists, but also for competition and future innovation.”

He adds that the history of web businesses has inclined towards the monopoly: “There’s only one Amazon, one PayPal, one Facebook, one Google, one eBay and one Fresh Direct. Monopoly, however, has not historically been good for consumers or for innovation—regardless what tech companies say. Power corrupts; it’s a given.”

At Music Ally, we’ve posed the question of what’s required for streaming services to create sustainable businesses for themselves, let alone the artists that they support. Widening this out to the question of how many of these services can co-exist is an important extension to that question.

Spotify’s Artists website uses 40m paying subscribers as its example of a scale at which it will pay off much better for artists. Can the market support four or five companies with 40m people paying $10 a month? It sounds like a lot, but as 150m people out of a global population of 7bn, it seems… smaller. Maybe more attainable? What if 300m people would pay $5 a month, or 500m $3? Or, as is more likely to be the case, if 500m pay varying amounts?

My numbers are complete pie in the sky, and that’s the problem here: we’re all guessing. Perhaps several streaming services can scale up. Or perhaps we should be thinking small too: perhaps there are micro-models based around specific artists, labels or genres still to be discovered.

6. Byrne has some positive suggestions for how streaming could be better

I got really frustrated at the height of the hoo-ha around Thom Yorke and Atoms for Peace bandmate/producer Nigel Godrich’s attacks on Spotify, because they seemed content to leave them as just that: attacks. Godrich himself made this clear, suggesting it’s not up to artists to come up with ideas for better streaming services. But actually, maybe it is. Or at least for artists to play a constructive role in the process, rather than the (also necessary) destructive role of pointing out problems.

For much of its history, digital music is something that’s been done to musicians, not done by them. They haven’t played a role in creating the services, and usually haven’t had a choice about where or how their music is made available. The current transition from sales to streaming, ownership to access – whatever you call it – needs to be different.

That’s why it’s refreshing to see Byrne end his piece with four suggestions. First: that there should be no free on-demand streaming unless artists are directly controlling it through their own sites, or as publicity. Second: that they should get 50% of all streaming income paid to their labels. Third: that they should have approval of whether their work can be used. Fourth: transparent accounting and data sharing, to help artists reach their fans to market their music more effectively.

Points two, three and four seem very reasonable. There’s more of a debate to be had about point one – is free on-demand streaming not just an important competitor to piracy, but also a crucial funnel to eventually lead people into the subscription tiers for these services? It also seems like the thing we’re least able (whether as artists, labels or technology companies) to put back in the box, now that it’s established.

But still: debate. We need more longform criticism of this kind from artists concerned about streaming, alongside the angry tweets and the behind-the-scenes decisions about whether to withhold albums or not. David Byrne may not be sold on streaming in its current form, but his views will hopefully contribute to its future evolution in a way that will help musicians survive and prosper.

Stuart Dredge

Read More: Analysis
4 responses
  • Taylor says:

    “But it’s an important point: what artists might we be losing, if they don’t see a way to make money from streaming?”

    At the end of the day this question is useless because the rate of content creation (in all media) only continues to increase. There will always be something or someone else to fill a creative hole left by an artist, filmmaker, or writer you love.

    Even when I personally think about my top 10 favorite artists never putting out another song or album again, I can easily think of 20-30 new artists that will immediately take their place.

    This is what frustrates me most about Byrne & Co’s rants – they treat their own music and the music they like as though it’s some kind of finite resource, a trapping of the old school music business. It’s not. David Byrne has inspired literally HUNDREDS of artists to take his place should he ever decide to call it a day. And many of them will do it purely for the love of it (without any economic benefit attached).

  • Tim says:

    I think that you’re missing the point a bit here in that quote. He’s actually referring to the 20-30 new artists that you say will take their place. His point is that those artists may not be around. And the comment about doing it purely for the love is valid to a point, but if the economic possibilities look bleak enough, you will undoubtedly lose a substantial piece of the talent pool.

  • Rick says:

    If you believe that all music is created equal and any song can replace any other then you are correct to assume that if David Byrne vanished then 20 or 30 clones will take his place.

    The real question is do you want the original or the copies? Do you want the Beatles or the Beatles tribute band creating the soundtrack for your life?

    Creating great music takes study, dedication, talent AND time… If creators cannot make a living they will not have sufficient time in music to learn how to make better and better music….

  • ted pearce says:

    What was wrong with only getting a sampling of an album in the past that we MUST make all songs free on demand now? It make no sense or cents. As an indie, why can’t I put all music online for digital sale, but only a few songs “free on demand”?

    Sales at gigs are still rocking…but there isn’t a good reason for anyone to buy a CD online, if they can get it free.

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