Just when we thought label attacks on Spotify were calming down and everyone was playing nice again, the president of Kill Rock Stars (home to Elliott Smith, Bratmobile, Deerhoof, Sleater-Kinney, Gossip and more) has charged into the fray, all guns blazing. Portia Sabin laid into the service, saying that it favoured the majors, giving them tasty advances while tossing indie labels the crumbs.
She suggested that new music services, running on VC money, are basically there to benefit the majors and short-change the indies. “One of the more scary parts of the internet,” she argues, “is that it has provided a funnel to take venture capital money and shoot it through right back to the major labels.” It is a system, she alleges, that also gives the majors advances and expects the indies to just accept what they are offered.
She adds that the majors accepted a “terrible per-stream rate” because they also managed to get “giant advances” that are non-recoupable, meaning they “don’t have to pay the artists any of that money”. Instead, “all they have to pay is the crappy per-stream rate”. She also attacks the payola system at radio that is pricing smaller labels out of the system – but says that internet/satellite radio like Pandora and SiriusXM has, on the whole, been good for indies and they “dominate in those formats”.
There are a few things to address in these comments. Sabin says that Spotify “gave the majors stock in the company”. It did. It also, via Merlin, gave the indies stock. So it seems remiss to not mention that.
Her comments also came out of an interview with a “punk puppet” (stick with us) called Weena. But keen fans of irony will note that the interview was for part of a YouTube series called The Media Show. So, to recap, the president of a record label went on YouTube to complain about the payment rates from Spotify. OK.
It’s absolutely a label’s right to rail against what they see as unfavourable (and unsustainable) terms and royalty rates that they are just expected to suck up. It is important their criticisms are heard and that they feel they can express them in public (she also makes a great point about how fans need to educate themselves about industry issues, especially around the way majors are structured, if they want to see real change happen). However, complaining about the poor terms offered by one service while on another service that everyone agrees pays even less, somewhat undermines your point.
We sincerely wish she had chosen somewhere other than YouTube to complain about Spotify as it will be used against her and treated as a way to dismiss her criticisms – even when she does make a huge number of valid points. There is an argument that you should carefully pick your enemies; in digital music, that needs to be revised to carefully pick your platforms.