On Sunday 14th July Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich sparked a debate on Twitter by saying Spotify is bad for new artists. The next morning the choicer tweets were reported in the mainstream press with Yorke once again cast in the role of indie messiah. Tuesday then brought allegations of hypocrisy from both the old guard and the bright young things. Meanwhile the rest of the music world scratched their heads and said “didn’t we have the big Spotify royalties argument years ago? Is this still a thing?”
But the interesting thing is not the subject of the debate but the scale of the backlash. It seems as though everyone is coming down on one side or the other, arguing about the pros and cons of streaming, throwing dubiously interpreted figures at one another, long term statistics versus short term, predicted growth etc etc… Suddenly everyone seems rather impassioned.
But what’s the real story here? I don’t think it’s about artists getting an unfair cut of song revenue (how could that be a story? It’s the way the music industry has been run ever since it began – hardly a scoop). It is also not about Spotify’s opaque finances, or about major labels being influential shareholders in what began as a seemingly hip and radical new company. Nor is it about the man who popularised the Pay-What-You-Want model suddenly whining about not making enough money.
I wonder if the story is Fear. The fear that we put our faith in something that might turn out to disappoint us, that a promised long-sought harmony between art and industry may have been botched again. Or even worse, that we may have actually managed to encourage a situation in which the pay-per-play model (previously viewed as a sort of would-be-saviour for the modern music market) somehow only benefits the likes of Universal. Has the clever little pig who built his house out of bricks discovered he’s locked the wolf in with him?
But the Big Bad Wolf in this instance is not the major labels or Spotify. It is our continued and unfounded expectation that one single model, one easy to swallow pill, could simplify a business that has over the last fifteen years become very very complicated indeed.
Whether or not the Spotify allegations are true is immaterial (plenty of artists try to spark controversial or topical debates when they’ve got a new album to plug – ever noticed Morrisey’s racist outbursts tend to be synchronised with his touring schedule?). Here the argument itself is the issue. It is indicative of a wholly anachronistic (but deeply entrenched) way of thinking, one that is rife among artists and management alike – put basically: there is currently a problem and one day there will be a solution and things will finally go back to being the way they were.
Yes, I agree with Yorke and Godrich that Spotify fills the coffers of shareholders rather than artists and I lament the company’s perceived shift from great leveller to great dictator. But what saddens me most isn’t the thought of a company being more interested in increasing its profits than helping poets, it’s that so few of us can resist this foolish quest for the Philosopher’s Stone. Why do we insist on ramming 20th Century pegs into 21st Century holes? Do we really think the future is going to be one size fits all?
The internet put an end to the idea that progress must always be a linear narrative. Rather than “This begat That” we now face a formidable tangle of options hissing at us like so many heads of the Hydra. And yet we still cherish a Buck Rogers view of the future where new things are the same as old things but a bit shinier. This is no longer a simple tale of ever-renewing formats, recited like some kind of technological nursery rhyme: sheet music was replaced by 78s that were replaced by 45s that were replaced by CDs that were replaced by mp3s that were replaced by streams that were replaced by sonic enemas that were replaced by spinal jukeboxes that were replaced by brain radios… NO.
So aside from the wails of “Not fair! Not fair!” and the “how do we make the new Dark Dide Of The Moon with just a 0.4p royalty” argument, what are the actual facts? What can we, the starving-artist DIY sector put our faith in? If a company’s finances are a mystery and the major labels are making shady deals and the future looks bleakly uncertain then trust something real – the audience.
I know I go on about this a lot but, really, Talk To Them. Don’t just trust some article in Music Week that says “everyone’s on Spotify these days…” ask your audience what services they use and what they want from you. Then work out a strategy from there. You know where to find these people, they’re not hidden like Spotify’s account books, they’re the ones who make that reassuring clapping sound when you finish playing a song (and if there’s no one doing that yet then it’s a bit premature to be worrying about Spotify royalties). Why have the streaming argument with faceless trolls in the comment section of the online Guardian when you can have it with the people who are already part of your work? You think Spotify is a good discovery platform for new artists? Well it’s nothing compared to actual humans talking to each other. I was chatting to an audience member after a gig recently and asked her how she’d discovered us and she told me a policeman had recommended one of our songs while she was waiting to make a statement – stick that in your algorithm and smoke it!
Sure you can withdraw your music from these services (my friend Steve Lawson did that in 2011 and outlined his reasons with charm and eloquence on his website) but whatever distribution tools you favour remember the most important thing is to engage with the listener rather than the platform. If anything is the future, it’s that. The modern music industries are built on networks. Networks are built on relationships. Don’t just wait for a fresh format and then moan when the new boss turns out to be the same as the old boss… you’re an artist, be creative.
Maybe the music business as we know it simply isn’t going to be saved. Maybe it’ll just continue to scrabble around in a purgatory of Kickstarter myths, desperate hat-passing and grim talent competitions. Maybe Spotify is just another way of making fat cats fatter. Well, it’s not like musicians aren’t used to that.
Yes, we opened Pandora’s Box. Yes, out flew all manner of catastrophes. Perhaps it was preventable. Perhaps there was another direction we could have taken. Perhaps we narrowly missed a new Eden. Unfortunately we all know that once these problems are out, they don’t go back in.
But we also know what the last thing to emerge from Pandora’s Box was…