David Byrne is among the most vocal critics of the likes of Spotify, specifically the much lower payday that musicians enjoy these days. This is exemplified by Bette Midler’s recent claim that three months’ streaming on Pandora with 4,175,149 plays = $114.11.
— Bette Midler (@BetteMidler) April 4, 2014
Pretty paltry numbers. Under the self-explanatory title ‘How Will The Wolf Survive: Can Musicians Make A Living In The Streaming Era?’ Byrne again sets out some reasons for arguing so incessantly against these streaming services (if you want to call them a service; musicians might deride them as a disservice at this stage. Here’s one of the points that Byrne makes:
“One of the knock-on effects of ubiquitous streaming is the democratization of music… Now, I don’t know if this is a real 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. 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).”
The claim is basically that people who use streaming services are returning to bands they already know, the big acts who have already made a living and are back for their next shilling (that’ll take 10,000 plays, I presume). It’s a topic that Consequences of Sound/Component/Aux.out delved into in a huuuuge article recently: “And that’s our biggest problem: nobody seems to be thinking about music as just Music anymore; and nobody is thinking about the listener as an individual, a fellow human being. Everybody’s looking out for their proprietary interests, all desperately grasping to hang onto or get a hold of a piece of the pie, promoting their own agendas by spewing massive levels of toxic discourse within think pieces and press releases and mass emailings and panels and seminars about streaming vs. sales and royalties and rights – all of it poisoning the very ecosystem of music and immersing listeners within a sea of negativity… with even your most active listeners believing that you really don’t give a damn about them: all you want is their money.
“And therein lies the real danger: if you don’t care about your listener as an individual – if they think that all they are to you are anonymous sets of ears and eyeballs attached to wallets – then why the hell should they give a fuck about you? This is the truly toxic effect of the Elephant in the Music Room: it isn’t just the abundance of music or our lack of ability to penetrate this immense abundance – it’s our desperate, fearful, self-interested reactions to this abundance and the technologies surrounding it. Whether you like it or not, we’re all in this together – divided, we fall – and right now, we’re collectively setting ourselves up for a fall of gargantuan proportions.”
Another claim that Byrne makes on his website is: “I already have to audit Warner every time I want to know my sales, downloads and streaming metrics. Spotify, for example, is currently only required to account back to labels not artists (not surprisingly, and maybe reasonably, as the labels control the copyrights on the recordings—the artists traditionally don’t).” As well as how demeaning it must be for Byrne, a musical pioneer if ever there was one, whose work with Talking Heads and Brian Eno still sounds so fresh and forward thinking as it did 30-odd years ago, to go to his label and ask how his songs are going down online and if he can have his pittance of a paycheque, it also showcases just how low down the rung musicians, no matter the calibre, are in the hard and fast business world. In a recent Observer feature on festivals, and Glastonbury in particular, Ed Vulliamy writes: “If something exhibits creative authenticity, it will be commodified and ruined.” Seems apt in this case.
In a recent edition of NME (and we won’t even talk about how the internet has destroyed sales of music magazines; maybe next week), Tom Fleming of Wild Beasts is talking to Michael Gira of Swans about the latter’s label Young God, which put out records by the likes of Devandra Banhard and Akron/Family.
Gira: “I’m unable to pursue Young God as a label for other people now. It’s just not possible. You can’t do that if people don’t buy the records.”
Fleming: “No, exactly. We’ve had to do stuff that we would never even have considered before, just to pay rent. It’s really sad, and I feel like it makes us look bad as artists, because our opinions are to do that or oblivion, really.”
Gira: ” It sucks, doesn’t it? In all humility, the kind of success we’ve had over the last three years at our shows, if that translated into what that meant in record sales 15 years ago, I’d be doin’ great. But it doesn’t exist anymore.”
Fleming: “That’s the same for us. Again, with all humility, we had our first Top 10 record just this last week. I was over the moon. It sold, like, 7,500.”
Gira: That’s Top 10? You can’t live on that.”
Fleming: Nowhere near. A broken amplifier would cost that, almost. I always try to be very diplomatic whenever somebody asks me about streaming and illegal downloading and stuff, but I feel like, erm…”
Gira: I don’t think you should be diplomatic. You should just say what it is.”
Fleming: “Well, I think when it’s jeopardising… For example, someone like yourself, who a lot of people go and see, a lot of people have records by you, and it’s still difficult? That’s not right. It’s like anything: if you don’t use your local cinema it’s going to shut down, and in one sense it serves you right. On a more positive note, I’d deft anyone to listen to any of your records in a passive way. Even the sheer duration is a fuck you to that kind of attitude, and it’s one of the things I really like, because it is becoming rarer and rarer – not just demanding the attention, but all of the attention.”
Gira: ” Well what else is there? You have to do what you think is right. Otherwise you’re just a fuckin’ little Barbie doll.”
When the likes of Michael Gira are curtailing their artistic output because of lack of sales, you begin to realise just how bad things are. When Wild Beasts only sell 7,500 copies of their album on its first week of release, which one would presume would be its strongest week of sales too, then you realise how bad things are. If Byrne hadn’t already scared you, just remember that we’re barely a decade into the era of streaming on demand – in Ireland, we’ve only had decent broadband since about 2006; down in the wilds of west Cork anyway. If things are this bad now, after six years of Spotify – it launched in Sweden in 2008, only coming to Ireland about two years ago – imagine what things will look like in another six. Note: I use Spotify regularly – heck, I was listening to a couple of albums while I was writing this post. But I also buy music, digitally, on CD, on record, whichever; I don’t rely on it 100 per cent. One can get tired of a musician making the same sound over and over again, and while David Byrne never did that, he has been repeating similar points about Spotify. We can roll our eyes at his old-man schtick – the times they are a-changing, get with it grandpa – but we should take heed of his warnings. Before it’s too late.