Spotify: out of tune on royalties

For once, Thom Yorke has a point: musicians should be paid properly.

Neil Davenport

Topics Culture

On Monday, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke announced that he has pulled his solo songs and those with his offshoot group, Atoms For Peace, from music-streaming service Spotify, prompting a debate about Spotify and other similar services’ impact on new music. ‘New artists get paid fuck all with this model’, he complained. Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich also waded into the debate, complaining that ‘small labels and new artists can’t even keep their lights on. It’s just not right.’

Spotify offers a limited free streaming service, and a tiered unlimited service at £5 and £10 a month. But some artists have now complained that because the per-stream payments are comparatively tiny, they’d be better off selling CDs and digital downloads. The industry average amounts to slightly less than 0.4p a stream – meaning that one million streams of a song would generate about £3,800. Most songs receive far fewer streams. Stream payments certainly compare unfavourably with royalties from major radio stations, whereby a three-minute song generates £59.73 per play.

There is no doubt that digital streaming, and Spotify in particular, is an incredible technological development. It provides access to, and a platform for, all kinds of music that, in the not-so-distant past, would have been unthinkable. Arguably, newer bands and musicians may have benefited from Spotify too, as new listeners discover albums that they then go out and buy. And to be fair to Spotify, it is not infringing artists’ copyright – arguably the full albums you can to listen on YouTube are doing that – as artists have to give their permission before their back catalogue can be streamed.

Also, it is not as if listening to music without paying very much is a new development. Back in the Eighties and Nineties, cash-strapped youth would borrow albums from their mates or local libraries and record them on to cassettes. Malcolm McLaren’s band Bow Wow Wow attempted to court controversy with their 1980 single, ‘C30-C60-C90 Go!’, which celebrated home-taping piracy as a snub to record shops and record-company suits.

But although home taping was widespread back then, album sales were still very healthy and musicians could make a modest income from their songs. Although digital copies are far more convenient, user-friendly, and offer better quality sound than those hissy and unloved C90 cassettes, technological advances alone cannot explain why music lovers, even those with a disposable income, simply refuse to buy music anymore. Rather, there has been a cultural shift among the young, and not so young, whereby we believe we are entitled to grab artists work for free and to have it now. There is an almost childish belief that the effort and expense a band puts into their songs is an act of public service. Whenever musicians gingerly complain about loss of royalties, they’re shouted down as greedy corporate whores who should be grateful we even bother to listen. ‘Who do these musicians think they are?’, goes the refrain. Anyone would think they’re trying to earn a living!

All this is rather different from the not-so-recent past. Music fans once took great pride in a having a massive record or CD collection, and having something ‘on tape’ was simply not good enough. Home taping was not the sign of a genuine music lover; it merely indicated a tight-fisted disrespect to musicians. In 1986, twee band The Pooh Sticks’ single, ‘On Tape’, was both a sly dig at record-collecting hipsters and a celebration of having the genuine article over having it copied ‘on tape’. Despite records being far more expensive then than they are now, people wanted to buy records. It denoted a genuine passion for, and love of, music.

The digital revolution has been a great thing. Only an incorrigible Luddite would dismiss having 10,000 songs available in his jacket pocket. Unfortunately, the digital revolution has coincided with a rather infantile belief that a musician’s songs and work are simply there to be grabbed gratis. For once, I’m with Thom Yorke: musicians should be paid for their work.

Neil Davenport is a writer and sociology/politics teacher in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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Topics Culture


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