Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Is it time for David Byrne to critique the live music business?

Now that the musician has called out streaming services and major labels, should the live music business be next on his list?

David Byrne. Photo: Catalina Kulczar http://catalinakulczar.com

Wed, Aug 5, 2015, 10:06


It’s fair to say that David Byrne has an admirable track record when it comes to questioning the music business about what he sees before him as he goes about his work as a musician and artist. His 2012 book How Music Works is a superb, indepth, brilliantly written study of his view of the nuts and bolts of the business he found himself in when he first joined a band, while his thoughtful essay on Spotify from 2013 was full of strong, valid, well-considered points.

Byrne has added to his catalogue this week with an opinion piece for the New York Times which calls for more transparency from labels about royalty rates and percentages from streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify. As things stand, he notes, there are a raft of non-disclosure agreements in place to prevent all parties from being more open about what’s going on. Of course, it’s also obvious that many of the labels who negotiated and signed contracts with the streaming services have no interest whatsoever in opening their books and showing their acts what’s what – and there’s no compunction on them to do so.

“I asked Apple Music to explain the calculation of royalties for the trial period,” explains Byrne in the piece. “They said they disclosed that only to copyright owners (that is, the labels). I have my own label and own the copyright on some of my albums, but when I turned to my distributor, the response was, “You can’t see the deal, but you could have your lawyer call our lawyer and we might answer some questions.”

Byrne points out that more transparency and co-operation between acts and labels would actually help to grow revenues and the business. “Musicians are entrepreneurs”, he writes. “We are essentially partners with the labels, and should be treated that way. Artists and labels have many common interests — both are appalled, for instance, by the oddly meagre payments from YouTube (more people globally listen to music free on YouTube than anywhere else).

“With shared data on how, where, why and when our audience listens, we can all expand our reach. This would benefit YouTube, the labels and us as well. With cooperation and transparency the industry can grow to three times its current size, Willard Ahdritz, the head of Kobalt, an independent music and publishing collection service, told me.”

It is heartening and not a little fascinating to see an artist of Byrne’s calibre and heft digging away in this way. Instead of harumphing and throwing the toys out of the pram like some of his peers (hello Thom Yorke), Byrne is working away on finding out why things are the way they are and what can be done to change them. Because he does so in such an eloquent, inquisitive and fact-finding manner – and because he is David Byrne – people take notice of what he has to say. He is also smart enough to acknowledge that he’s a member of the one percent, those artists who were fortunate enough to enjoy the good times for the music industry when people actually bought physical products, yet he’s clearly keen to ensure a level playing field for all artists.

But there’s one area which Byrne has yet to touch on and which is of far more interest to working musicians and the 99 per cent. It would be illuminating to see a musician like Byrne turn his attention to the live side of the music business. While the streaming services and record business accounts for a goodly sized chunk of the music industry, the live and festival sector are the real growth area and there are many issues in this area to pique the curiosity of an artist like Byrne if he was so inclined. Between the remarkable growth in gigantic all-you-can-eat entities like Live Nation, the multiple conflicts of interest inherent in the big tent music business (see the cosy Venn diagram between promoters, agents, ticket sellers and venues) and the socio-ecomomic politics of the festival fad, Byrne would have plenty to keep him busy.

While Byrne’s comments and findings on what goes on in the live music business would certainly be interesting, the very fact that the musician even decided to examine the sector would be far more striking. While we’ve become used to artists having a go at labels and streaming services (and getting mixed up about who their contracts are with in this regard – God bless their independent legal advice), it’s very, very rare for acts to come out and ask questions about the real big beasts of the music industry.

Perhaps this is down to a chilling effect, in that they don’t want to do or say anything to upset and disturb the pipeline of fat fees for their concerts and festival appearances. Perhaps it’s easier to have a go at Spotify or labels than lift some rocks and look at the live business. Perhaps they think that giving out about everyone’s favourite whipping boy Ticketmaster will tick that box while the real issues go unchecked.

Regardless, we look forward to the day when an A-list artist like Byrne extends their forensic skills to the live business. It doesn’t have to be Byrne, but seeing as the one-time Talking Head is the only one taking a stand and actually making sense about a whole raft of issues, it looks like it’s all down to him. Maybe he’ll find the time sometime between the staggering list of projects which currently have his attention. And if he needs a hand about where to look, he should give us a shout.