Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

A question for those musicians fuming about Spotify…

….do you have a better idea?

Thom Yorke caught between Spotify and a hard place

Tue, Jul 16, 2013, 09:20


And we’re off – again. This time, the Spotify-bashing can be traced back to a decison by indie supergroup Atoms For Peace to withdraw their album “Amok” from the high profile streaming service. Band member Thom Yorke also withdrew his solo album “The Eraser”, while fellow peace-seeking atom Nigel Godrich yanked his band Ultraista’s self-titled album from the Spotify servers. The albums released by Yorke’s main band Radiohead for EMI are still accesible on the service, as are the albums released by Atoms for Peace’s Flea for Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The reason for this action? You have to turn to Twitter for this where Godrich explained all – or explained all he could in 140 characters or less – and set this storm in motion. This is probably the most telling of his weekend rally of tweets

Godrich then went to elaborate on that “small meaningless rebellion” at some length and typed about how “new artists get paid fuck all with this model. It’s an equation that just doesn’t work”. Godrich believes that Spotify is a case of “the music industry…being taken over by the back door” and that “the art will suffer”. Spotify naturally disagree and claim that they’re out to create “the most artist-friendly music service possible”. Back on Twitter, many others added their tuppenceworth to the discussion (here are some of the more thoughtful contributions collated by Darren Hemmings). Even Radiohead’s manager has had his say and he regards Spotify as “a good thing”.

There will be a loud and hearty “harumph” from thousands of musicians about Spotify’s attempt to calm the natives. They, no doubt, agree with what Godrich and his bandmate have said and are doing because Spotify’s payments system has become a much publicised bone of contention for many musicians, as it proves to them that making music from recorded music is not the same as it used to be. Then again, nothing is the same as it used to be, but musicians are finding it very hard to come to terms with this as we see again and again. When people point out that recorded music is just one of many ways to make a living from music, they do tend to get a little shirty.

There are also howls of anger from those same musical ranks about how the labels have managed to fence in the streaming services to their own advantage. You can be sure that the money which first comes out of the Spotify pipe is a lot more than the money which trickles down to the music-makers. But because of the contracts signed, the rights assigned and all the other super-elaborate and super-restrictive ins and outs of your average recording contract, the lion’s share goes elsewhere.

While you could say that the acts should have thought of this before they sipped a glass of champagne and signed those contracts, many such deals were done before Spotify was even a glint in Daniel Ek’s eye. Simply put, many more musicians might like to yank their music off Spotify but can’t because they have assigned their rights to a label (or, as musicians unable to see the wood for the trees put it, The Man has stolen our music, even though The Man paid them for the pleasure at the time). The labels are naturally happy with the Spotify deals they themselves have subsequently signed. Hence, why Yorke and his Radiohead bandmates are unable to get their EMI albums off the service.

The tangled web of contracts between labels and artists on one hand and streaming services and labels on the other means it’s a big ol’ complicated mess. Often the headlines which emerge from these rows about Spotify payments are completely wrong because it’s actually a low final payment from the label to the artist which is causing the fuss in the first place, not the payment from Spotify to the act because such payments never happen. However, your average music news reader doesn’t really have the time, attention span, interest or inclination to delve all that deeply into the story so it becomes a case of “Spotify bad, Atoms for Peace good”.

It’s interesting that Spotify are the ones getting it in the neck. After all, you can still freely stream Atoms for Peace’s music on YouTube or Grooveshark or Deezer, for example. Spotify are the ones being made an example of here because they’re the big dominant players and everyone likes seeing the big dominant players get it in the neck in every walk of life. Atoms For Peace know they’re dealing with an easy target.

Perhaps it all comes down to money and AFP are happy with their cut from others (are they happy with Grooveshark?), but feel they should be getting more money from Spotify. So why isn’t their gripe then with XL Records, who released the album and stuck it onto Spotify in the first place? Why isn’t Nigel Godrich having a pop at Richard Russell and Martin Mills for the shite money he and his bandmates are getting for their Spotify plays? Is it because it’s much easier to go all in on the prevailing (misleading) narrative than actually deconstruct what is going on and widen the debate considerably? Indeed, why hasn’t XL or any other label stepped up to defend Spotify in all of this?

Furthermore, do Yorke, Godrich and the other Spotify haters in the audience have any better ideas than Spotify given we’re not going back to the old ways of selling your music for cash? Changes in how music fans listen to music means streaming services are becoming the dominant players so Spotify is here for good unless an alternative comes along. Spotify has become the consumers’ choice in that market and those consumers are your fans, both existing and future.

Yes, Spotify and its peers are tech plays and are from a sector who want to – shock, horror – make money from music and make no bones about this. But didn’t the music side, the side who also want to money from music but are a little shy about stating this overly, get all hot and bothered when tech plays of old just went ahead and used music without permission? Do the musicians want to go back to the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-make-deals-and-agree-cash-later situation of old? I’m sure the tech side will be delighted to hear this. Save them those tiresome rounds of meetings and negotiations with stuck-in-the-mud music types. And anyway, why did musicians and their middlemen leave it to someone else to come with a streaming solution in the firts place?

It’s also worth remembering that we’re dealing with a very unequal playing pitch on the musicians’ side, something which also gets lost in the hubbub and something which means we’ll never get a trade union for musicans, like some have called for. There are many musicians who would give their right arm (well, maybe not) to be in the position Yorke, Godrich and other Spotify critics are in. They would love to be hugely successfully rock stars and producers who have used the old system to establish their audiences, careers and large bank accounts instead of struggling for the three Ts (track sales, ticket sales and traction).

It’s really encouraging that Godrich, Yorke and co want to take this action to raise a flag on behalf of new acts, but they’re really fighting the wrong battle and it comes across more as a fit of pique than anything else. It would be far more helpful and useful for all concerned if they pointed out how Spotify deals worked, explained the breakdown between label and artists when it comes to streaming payments and outlined why they’re attacking Spotify but not YouTube or Grooveshark (or XL Records). Then again, it’s far easier to get “Spotify sucks” into a 140 word tweet than try to shoehorn in all of the above.