Tuesday 3 December 2013

Spotify bites back

Spotify has attempted to hit back at its critics today with the launch of its Spotify Artists website. In announcing this the music streaming company also came clean on what it pays to artists whose work is accessed from their service.

They have been much criticised in recent weeks by some artists, Thom Yorke and David Byrne being amongst them, for the minuscule payments they make, with some contending that services like Spotify are killing the music industry. For proponents of this argument the reasoning is pretty straightforward: the amount of money paid by such services to the artist is tiny, forcing them to find some other way to earn a crust.

Today’s statement appears to back this up. The average payment to artists per stream is stated as being between $0.006 and $0.0084. That won’t go far towards the new swimming pool.

The effects of this are varied, depending on who you listen to, but streaming’s detractors are sure it is not good.

David Byrne, in a recent article in the Guardian spelt out the case:

“The larger question is that if free or cheap streaming becomes the way we consume all (recorded) music and indeed a huge percentage of other creative content—TV, movies, games, art, porn—then perhaps we might stop for a moment and consider the effect these services and this technology will have, before “selling off” all our cultural assets the way the big record companies did. If, for instance, the future of the movie business comes to rely on the income from Netflix’s $8-a-month-streaming-service as a way to fund all films and TV production, then things will change very quickly. As with music, that model doesn’t seem sustainable if it becomes the dominant form of consumption.”

Byrne goes on to link the effect of diminishing returns for the artist with the slightly less tangible argument that audio streaming—and in fact the entire internet—is stifling creativity.

The second point is interesting but although David Byrne disavows himself of the term ’Luddite’, that is precisely what his article suggests to be his philosophical viewpoint.

Interestingly, Billy Bragg recently joined the debate and for me it is the Bard of Barking who has spoken the most sense. As he wrote on his Facebook page:

“The problem with the business model for streaming is that most artists still have contracts from the analog age, when record companies did all the heavy lifting of physical production and distribution, so only paid artists 8%–15% royalties on average. Those rates, carried over to the digital age, explain why artists are getting such paltry sums from Spotify.”

Exactly. Digital reproduction makes the distribution of recorded work unbelievably easy and cheap. That’s great for the consumer. The owners of the product (the record labels) do OK. But those whose job it is to produce the actual goods suffer the consequences of technological change.

But what’s new? Could that not be taken as a description of all industries? Digitisation of the product and its easy distribution via the internet has been a game-changer. The music industry is suffering but not alone. The printing and publishing industries—and not for the first time—are going through the same process of adjustments to the impact of new technologies. I should know, having moved from print to web during the last decade.

There is a contradiction at the heart of all this: the ready access to the means of production and distribution for everyone brings forth the possibility of an incredible flowering of creativity. There simply are no barriers to anyone who has a vision to present that to the world.

But at the same time, as long as the old paradigm of production and distribution exist, these will be exploited by those jealously guarding their cut. It needs imagination and combined action on the part of those at the sharp end to overcome it. Ultimately David Byrne damns himself in this regard with his admission that he has no alternative. So stop whining and get creative!

Adding comments has now expired for this post.