Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: I’m all for discussing streaming, but please stop shouting

By | Published on Wednesday 17 July 2013

Thom Yorke & Nigel Godrich

Right. I’m begrudgingly writing this Editor’s Letter about Nigel & Tommy’s Anti-Spotify Roadshow. I did have something else planned, but that will have to wait, because this has become such a big news story, it would be odd not to comment. Though I say ‘begrudgingly’ because I kind of feel like this is a topic that’s been covered many times before, and nothing new has really been added to the debate in the last few days.

Look, here’s a piece I wrote nearly two years ago that covers most of this week’s key points. Here’s one from last July. Here’s one on the parallel songwriter royalties argument. And here’s one from last month that covers some of the same ground. Oh, and here’s one Chris wrote earlier this week, as The Godrich Tweets went viral.

There’s nothing wrong with discussing the ever evolving streaming music market of course – and, as Radiohead manager Brian Message said – it’s right for artists to speak up if they think their interests are being ignored. Though when the debate quickly becomes “Naughty Spotify – we’re not going to talk to you anymore!”, I’m not sure we’re getting anywhere.

Not least because it quickly over simplifies the debate into “is Spotify evil or lovely?” When what we are really talking about here is the emergence of various subscription and ad-funded music platforms, most offering some sort of all-you-can-eat service, and some fully endorsed by the music business, others reluctantly so, some not at all. As many have pointed out this week, while Nigel and Tommy may have pulled their Atoms For Peace output from Spotify, it’s still on YouTube and Grooveshark.

The debate, therefore, should be more wide-ranging. Different subscription and ad-funded services are operating slightly differently, offering royalties to rights owners from nothing to almost nothing to almost something. Many of these services are loss making and very secretive about how they plan to become profitable.

But while the digital services themselves are fighting for territory, shouldn’t the music community – who surely want there to be lots of successful digital services out there – be considering what’s working and what’s not working, and sharing that information? The labels presumably are behind closed doors, but perhaps they should stop using the NDA defence and start including other musical stakeholders in that debate.

I suppose Godrich’s tweets – although specifically focused on Spotify – were in essence engaged, partly, in that wider debate, by putting forward the theory that Spotify et al are working very well indeed for ‘catalogue’ artists but totally failing for ‘new’ artists.

Meaning that this week’s debate has been portrayed as ‘new’ artists en masse asking the question “what has Spotify ever done for us?” Perhaps if Spotify boss Daniel Ek isn’t so keen on delivering an Amanda Palmer-style riposte to his critics, he could instead write a Monty Python sketch rip off.

Though Nigel wasn’t especially clear what he meant by ‘new’ artists, and the term hasn’t been much clarified by many of the other debaters on this topic either. By new artist are we talking about acts recently signed to a label and promoting their first album, or self-releasing artists trying to make it on their own?

New bands with a label deal won’t be earning any sound recording royalties from Spotify at all, it’s true. Because they won’t have recouped on their record contract yet, and the label will be taking all the revenue generated by their sound recordings to get back the investment the company made in launching said artist’s career. But that’s nothing new, and nothing to do with Spotify. And remember, it’s long been the case that most artists never recoup on their first record contract.

Of course, perhaps Nigel’s point is that the royalties coming in from streaming services for new artists are so small, they will be even less likely to recoup on their first label deal, and while that might not make any difference now, it will make it harder for today’s new talent to have long careers. Because even if they are a success story, it will take much longer to reach that point when sound recordings become a revenue stream for the artist too. And even once they have recouped, the monies may be tiny.

Though that’s probably an issue for artists to take up with their labels, rather than hitting out directly at Spotify et al. To be fair, Godrich’s tweets do imply that the big record companies are as much a part of this problem as the digital service providers, though because he doesn’t mention them by name that side has been ignored. But if labels have exploited recent uncertainties in the record industry to force artists into unfavourable or unworkable deals, then artists need to stand their ground. Against the labels.

But perhaps the labels aren’t relevant here. Perhaps by ‘new’ artists Nigel and Tommy are talking about self-releasing acts, who are totally in control, and not sharing their Spotify income with anyone, but still earning a pittance from the streaming sector. I understand why that would be depressing, especially when said artists keep reading that streaming is the future, that the Nordic markets are now predominantly stream-based, and that the majors are loving it.

Though, to be frank, any new self-releasing artist who thinks Spotify alone will provide them with a living is a fool. Or is being advised by a fool. Indeed, any musician who thinks that sound recording revenue alone will provide a viable income stream is living in a dreamland. And that’s not a particularly new phenomenon – even in the height of the CD boom, record sales income was only one of a number of revenue streams for artists, and in the early years of their career it wouldn’t be a key income either.

Artists need to build themselves a business that incorporates records, songs, merchandise and/or tickets, and look for simple ways to maximise all those revenues.

Crucially, they also need to start developing premium products and services for core fanbase – fans who have always been willing to buy more than a gig ticket every year and a record every other, but who were often left under-supplied by the old music business. Which is why, for artists, the real revolution caused by the web isn’t the emerging streaming market, but the boom in direct to fan and pre-order sites.

Not that it’s going to work for everyone. Remember, many more bands fail than succeed. It’s always been that way. I guess that’s just life. Sometimes bands fail because they are shit. Sometimes because they or their management or their label screw it up. Sometimes because of extraordinary bad luck. The internet hasn’t caused or changed any of that. Except that there are more bands now. So more will fail overall.

Making a living from music requires artists (with help from managers and labels etc) to set themselves apart from the competition (of which there is more and more), to build a loyal fanbase, and to work out how they – given their music, their personality and their fans – can best turn their content, their live act and, dare I say it, their ‘brand’ into money.

The internet provides some great tools to help with all of that. The challenge, though, is working out which ones are most appropriate for any one artist. And then having the time to manage them properly. Which means – as always – artists with access to money and people will always have an advantage.

I guess the problem with this week’s debate is that you end up with one group of people who believe that streaming is going to save the music industry and another who believe that it’s going to destroy it. But streaming is going to do neither of those things. It’s a new way to entertain and service fans that’s going to be part of the business for the foreseeable future. But the money it generates will just be one of various revenue streams available to artists. 90% of whom will still, as always, never make a living from their music. And on that happy thought, enjoy the sunshine.