Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Why David Byrne’s Spotify musings are worth clicking

….and why the thoughtful points raised by Byrne, Nicolas Jaar and others on streaming and new music business models are a good thing

Talking head: David Byrne

Mon, Oct 14, 2013, 09:52


As we’ve noted several times already here, Spotify has become the favourite whipping boy when it comes to wagging a finger, giving a dirty look and simply fuming about the unfair state of the world. A week ago, we wrote about Thom Yorke’s latest dig at the popular Swedish service. This week, it’s David Byrne who has decided to step up to the plate and have his say.

But there are key differences with Byrne’s essay carried in The Guardian and the other pieces of late. Byrne acknowledges the fact that he and others who have issues with the economics of Spotify and other streaming services are actually the music industry’s one per cent. They’re the acts, to quote Byrne, who got a leg up from the traditional label support infrastructure of old. “Some of us have other sources of income, such as live concerts, and some of us have reached the point where we can play to decent numbers of people because a record label believed in us at some point in the past.”

Byrne also points out that many acts have no problems with Spotify, viewing it positively “as a way of getting noticed, of getting your music out there where folks can hear it risk free.” He quotes from cellist Zoe Keating and Glassnote label boss Daniel Glass in this regard.

But even the one per cent have criticims to make which are worth hearing and several of Byrne’s points are valid. For instance, Spotify and its champions go on about how the service can be used to discover new music. Byrne points out that you can actually check out an act without going anywhere near Spotify (“I’ll go directly to an artist’s website, or Bandcamp, or even Amazon”). He also wonders about the ratio of people who go on to actually purchase music once they’ve heard it on Spotify: “why would you click and go elsewhere and pay when the free version is sitting right in front of you? Am I crazy?”

Byrne’s well argued points touch on several areas which are part of a bigger debate. For instance, there seems to be a move of late from some quarters to question if artists are creating their work for art or money. “Historically, musicians who weren’t among the top pop stars were never well-paid – isn’t that just the way it goes if you decide to make music your calling?”, he writes. “Were recording artists simply spoiled for a few decades and now those days are gone? Even Wagner was always in debt and slept with rich women to get funding – so nothing’s new, right? I know quite a few fine artists who teach – presumably to make ends meet and to allow them the freedom to do what they want. But I don’t see hordes of band-members getting comfy spots in universities anytime soon.”

The thing is that there’s no one right solution to all of this because the business of making music and getting paid for making music has changed utterly. The era of one-size-fits-all solutions is well and truly over. There are now so many different ways to skin this particular cat that keeping track of all the new possibilities is nigh impossible. There are also, as Byrne reminds us, many different takes on innovations and iterations.

For instance, reading Byrne’s essay brought to mind a recent Billboard magazine interview with Nicolas Jaar on how he operates in the age of digital natives. Jaar talks about labels, collaborations (his excellent Darkside album with Dave Harrington is highly recommended), subscriptions, compilations, distribution partners, management, A&R, art and a ton of other stuff.

Streaming? Yeah, Jaar talks about that too. “I think there’s something about streaming that in a way just makes sense right now. Because we’re all connected to the Internet and therefore the idea of ownership is a little more loose. So I think there’s something in a way that’s very humbling for music to say ‘yes, it’s OK, you can just stream me and that’s enough.’ Because it is enough. The only thing that music is is listenable.”

Indeed, that could well be a starting point for a whole new model: “the only thing that music is is listenable.” The point to take from all of these current musings (and rants) which Spotify has provoked is that the state of flux which began with the arrival of the digital download is still ongoing. Remember, music was still sold as a physical product 15 years ago and that the industry we spend so time and exert so much oxegen on is a relatively new phenomenon in the grand scale of things.

These current changes are novel and new. We may be aware that we’re living in a time of great change thanks to technology and disruption, but human beings take time – often a lot of time – to adjust to such changes. This debate will rumble on and that’s a very good thing.