Are streaming-music services a problem or solution to music-industry woes?

Are streaming-music services a problem or solution to music-industry woes?

Annie Zaleski: Nigel Godrich opened a can of worms recently when, in a series of tweets, the musician/producer announced that several projects in which he’s involved—including Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser and Atoms For Peace’s LP AMOK—were being removed from Spotify. (All punctuation in the following is Godrich’s.) “Anyway. Here’s one. We’re off of spotify.. Can’t do that no more man..Small meaningless rebellion,” he wrote. “Someone gotta say something. It’s bad for new music.. The reason is that new artists get paid fuck all with this model.. It’s an equation that just doesn’t work. The music industry is being taken over by the back door.. and if we don’t try and make it fair for new music producers and artists.....then the art will suffer. Make no mistake. These are all the same old industry bods trying to get a stranglehold on the delivery system..” (In his typically laconic fashion, Yorke retweeted some of Godrich’s thoughts and added, “Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will no get paid. meanwhile shareholders will shortly being rolling in it. Simples.”)

There’s a whole lot to unpack even in these brief tweets, but I have to commend Godrich and Yorke for making this move. For starters, they’re right about the “new music” aspect being downplayed. A cursory look at my current “Discovery” page on Spotify reveals a process that’s woefully oversimplified and not very savvy. While the service guessed (correctly) that I’d enjoy Duran Duran and Blondie since I listened to R.E.M., the only new(-ish) stuff recommended to me was Bastille, Magnetic Man, and Oh Land (all of which stemmed from the time I spent listening to Disclosure). Rocking David Bowie’s new album led them to suggest The Doors, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane, while because I listened to Daft Punk, Spotify thought I would enjoy… Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Scattered throughout these suggestions were nudges to check out Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, Pink, and Florida Georgia Line—all Top 40-leaning acts with plenty of exposure already.

What’s frustrating is that all streaming services aren’t like this; for starters, Rdio is great at highlighting each week’s new tunes in a prominent, easy-to-find place. But the odds seem stacked against smaller acts connecting with music fans via this service—a service whose influence continues to grow. Jason, what are your thoughts? Do you support Godrich and Yorke’s decision? Are new musicians getting the short end of the stick because of services such as Spotify?

Jason Heller: To answer your first question, Annie: Yes, I do support Godrich and Yorke’s decision. But not because I particularly care for the plight of a couple of very well-off artists, but because I pretty much support any musician’s right to do whatever he or she can to take control of their music. Which might indicate how I’d answer your second question: Yes, I do believe new musicians are getting the short end of the stick from Spotify. That said, I think it’s interesting that Godrich aimed his ire at “all the same old industry bods.” The only reason such bods are able to thrive is because artists let them—and the reason artists let them is because, deep down, they haven’t been much more successful at ridding themselves of the old music-industry mentality. New artists want to have their cake and eat it too, just like the industry executives do: They want superstardom, or at least the potential for superstardom, while embracing a new way of distributing and broadcasting music that maybe shouldn’t even be called “distribution” and “broadcasting” anymore.

Let me clarify that last point. It may seem like mere semantics, but those two terms come with tons of baggage, self-importance, and expectations. But the biggest thing they come with is the built-in concept of a central entity—that would be the music industry—having unilateral control over what gets heard where, and at what price. Sure, there are contracts and agents and publishers (and, way down at the bottom of this paradigm, listeners) who have a say in things. Any good autocratic institution will listen to its constituents just enough to keep them appeased, even as they fool them into thinking they’re really the ones voting with their dollar.

That dollar doesn’t mean so much these days. Thanks to Spotify and the like, inflation has skyrocketed when it comes to music; Spotify might as well be paying its participating artists in wheelbarrows full of million-mark notes. The basic unit of musical currency isn’t worth the hard-drive space that all those MP3s occupy. And when royalties are being counted by the thousandth of a penny, it makes the endangered penny itself suddenly look strong by comparison.

Right after I read about Godrich and Yorke pulling out of Spotify, I tweeted, “Come 2014, the Free Credit Report band will be the only group earning a living from its music…” What I didn’t say in that tweet is whether I thought that was a good thing or a bad thing. Not to get all modest-proposal about it, but maybe it’s time for smaller musicians—and I’m one myself, who’s released numerous records and been on numerous tours—to re-imagine what it means to share music, to be a musician, and to take part in the music industry that even the youngest up-and-comers remember as the primordial soup of superstardom. Annie, what do you think of that admittedly radical notion? Should artists ditch not just Spotify, but all vestiges of the old-guard music industry entirely? Even if it means taking a step backward, economically, before being able to move forward with a new model for the dissemination of popular music?

AZ: It’s hard to say whether artists ditching Spotify is going to make a huge difference—after all, it’s not like the music is disappearing from the Internet. (In fact, you can head over to YouTube and cue up the entire Atoms For Peace LP with a quick search.) But I’m more concerned by Spotify’s response to Godrich, especially this part: “Spotify’s goal is to grow a service which people love, ultimately want to pay for, and which will provide the financial support to the music industry necessary to invest in new talent and music.” That Utopian answer didn’t instill me with a lot of confidence; what if Spotify doesn’t reach that goal? What happens then? Plus, who’s to say that financial support going forward is going to be earmarked for new talent? 

And furthermore, how many people are suddenly going to want to pay for a service they’ve been using for free? This situation feels very familiar to the one that’s going on right now in journalism, as newspapers and other publications desperately try to find ways to stop hemorrhaging money. The vague promise of “online revenue” and “digital ad sales”—not to mention paywalls in front of formerly free content—aren’t necessarily compensating for the print ad dollars lost.

And speaking to Godrich’s point about catalog artists—I think it’s also important to note that many of these artists are also suffering under this new business model. For example, look at the case of Camper Van Beethoven’s Jonathan Segel, a musician who tours fairly regularly: He wrote matter-of-factly on his blog about losing his house and moving to Sweden. As Segel put it, “I know that many people will think: dude, you play in Camper Van Beethoven, don’t you make the bucks? … I’d be happy to talk about that some other time, basically I make about $2-5k a year from playing music.”

Segel’s an extreme case, but I also think you’re on to something with your idea of ripping it up and starting again. But in many ways, I think this is already happening—not just with new artists, but veteran artists as well. They’re fitting the music industry into their lifestyle, instead of being controlled by it. Peter Holsapple—who’s played with R.E.M. and Hootie And The Blowfish and still plays in The dB’s—wrote a thought-provoking piece in The New York Times recently in which he talked about transitioning from being a full-time musician to being someone with a day job who works on songwriting at night. “While I wish I’d been commercially successful years ago, I wasn’t; so the pressure is now off,” he wrote. “Considering also the new business model for music publishing, there’s not a lot of money to be earned without hitting the road anyway.” 

And there are other models emerging to help artists tour, disseminate music, and actually make money—from living-room tours with artists such as Damien Jurado and David Bazan to crowd-funding sites such as PledgeMusic, a Kickstarter alternative that offers more options for fans and artists. What these have in common is they facilitate direct interaction; they’re creating a parallel, artist-friendly model. 

I don’t doubt Spotify has good intentions when they say: “We’re 100% committed to making Spotify the most artist-friendly music service possible, and are constantly talking to artists and managers about how Spotify can help build their careers” or “We want to help artists connect with their fans, find new audiences, grow their fan base and make a living from the music we all love.” I just don’t think that Spotify is the best route to actually make these connections and career boosts happen.

But I also feel like despite these cautionary tales and plenty of negative press, the old music-industry worldview is hard to shake. The old guard is powerful—and the power continues to consolidate in the hands of a few labels, who have their tentacles in all aspects of media. (And as we all know, money gets a lot of things done.) So perhaps I’m just overly optimistic when I suggest that new artists would even want to—or know how to—adjust their expectations and career trajectory. Jason, how could young artists forge successful careers—and make a living—outside of the normal channels? How can we, as a friend of mine says, manage their expectations about the realities of the music industry? 

JH: I believe Spotify’s intentions are unimpeachably pure—and those intentions involve making money. If artists benefit in any way, fine by them. If they don’t, well, it’s a matter of how to spin things in such a way that makes it look like supporting artists is in any way a significant goal for them. The only reason Spotify pays lips service to smaller artists is because it’s a selling point for the service—to have so many millions of songs to choose from, even if Spotify could care less if 99.999 percent of those songs are rarely listened to. Small artists are just filler—the packing material surrounding the superstars.

And that’s the problem with any free online service of this scale that’s contemplating switching to a pay model. The consumer has to feel there’s at least some level of benevolence behind the service—otherwise, why not find a way to give that money directly to the artist, which, as you point out, is becoming increasingly easier? Paywalls can work, and in the future I think they’ll become far more viable than they seem today. Not to get all conflict-of-interest-y here, but I write for a site called NSFWCORP, and its very audacious and innovative experiments with paywalls, time-sensitive links, individual patronage/investment, print editions, and, yes, even paying its contributors top rates is just one example of how online consumerism and content distribution can be re-imagined. And not only re-imagined, but made an integral part of the site’s identity and appeal.

Spotify can’t switch gears like that because, underneath its ostensible newfangledness, it’s still another old-school-music-industry sausage machine, and music is still just lips and assholes. That doesn’t mean they don’t like music; I’m sure the CEOs of hot dog companies grill up plenty of franks every 4th Of July. Startups, though, have the luxury—no, the imperative—to build themselves on a more humane foundation. Not because it’s good PR (although it is that), but because it’s more sustainable than factory-farming your popular culture.

I don’t want to let artists off the hook here. It’s funny; lately I’ve been reading Ken Emerson’s excellent book Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster And The Rise Of Popular Culture, and it’s uncanny how even a legendary songwriter like Foster faced similar tribulations in mid-19th-century America—and made similarly stupid decisions. A lot of that came from ignorance, or the temperament of certain creative people that makes them avoid thinking too much about the commercial end of what they make (I say that as an example of such a person). If Foster had only published his own work—granted, easier said than done, although some of his contemporaries took that step—he might not have died drunk and penniless at the age of 37 while the music publishers he’d written for grew rich on his compositions.

I’m not trying to blame the victim here—again, I’m a musician too—but there is a sense of entitlement that’s seems particular to musicians in America. Part of it is the above-discussed expectations that people have when it comes to making music. Because the 20th century was rife with people who lived, and lived well, from making music doesn’t mean that can continue to be the case, especially seeing as how very few people before the 20th century made even a basic living at it (Foster included). What we see as the working musician is a recent blip in history. I’m not saying that civilization should regress, but that maybe the musicians aren’t putting things in the correct perspective. When a guy from Camper Van Beethoven—a great band, but come on, not Led Zeppelin—seems to think that he’s owed a certain standard of living, it’s just crazy. No, he shouldn’t be ripped off. But bands do not last forever, and even when they impossibly do, not everyone wants to give them a lot of money forever. Bands are like any other creative endeavor—and professional bands are like any entrepreneurial venture with a creative product to sell. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

As for my advice to up-and-coming musicians? It wouldn’t be, as Holsapple says in his Times piece, to have a day job on the side. That might work for someone who already established themselves to some degree via the old music-industry model, like Holsapple (or, for that matter, Yorke) did. But if you’re young, ambitious, and convinced you have something worth sharing with the world, you should jump into the deep end. Day jobs? Hell, there’s not even a guarantee you can get one of those nowadays. Young musicians, devote every waking moment to music. Listen to it, read about it, study it, eat it, sleep it, breathe it. Then spend the rest of your time making it—and thinking about ways to creatively disseminate it so that you can at least scrape by. Do something interesting with your music rather than following trends. Play every venue that will have you, large or small, as often as possible, instead of being picky and too cool. Make those shows events instead of just 45 minutes of four jagoffs standing onstage trying hard to look polished. Package your recorded music creatively so that it’s worth the price you want to sell it at (including fresh ways to use Kickstarter and other crowd-sourcing avenues that catch people’s attention and get them excited). Give back to the community. Be reckless. Be desperate. Learn how to live cheap, and think of your austerity as an investment, or a grand adventure, or both. Don’t act like anyone owes you anything, because no one wants to contribute to that kind of bullshit. (By the way, this is essentially the same advice I’d give aspiring writers who’d like to make a living at it someday.) Maybe the future of the music industry doesn’t require a one-size-fits-all solution, but an ownership of distribution by those who make the product—even if that means collaborating with services somewhat like Spotify that can help them along. For a price, of course, but still.

I’m bashing old-fashioned ways of thinking here, but at the same time, I think there’s a lot to be learned from the DIY punk ethic that everyone seems happy to bash or dismiss these days. DIY doesn’t mean anti-commercial. In its day, Fugazi sold shitloads of records, and made plenty of money touring—and it did so because people were happy to support what was, in essence, its un-brand. And by cutting out most middlemen, it kept more revenue for itself. Not every DIY act can be as big as Fugazi was, but young bands now are at an advantage over Fugazi: Not only is it cheaper to record and distribute your music yourself than it was in the ’90s, you have more incentive to do so. Not to get all philosophical here, but if suffering through your 20s (or beyond) as a struggling musician doesn’t bring you the standard of living you hoped it would, then cast around and look for that shitty day job that might not have even been there for you in the first place. Hell, if nothing else, maybe you can quit music and get a job at Spotify. If you can’t beat ’em…

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