David Byrne: 'The internet will suck all creative content out of the world'

David Byrne
‘I’ve pulled as much of my catalogue from Spotify as I can’ … David Byrne. Photograph: Chris Sembrot for the Guardian

The boom in digital streaming may generate profits for record labels and free content for consumers, but it spells disaster for today's artists across the creative industries.

Awhile ago Thom Yorke and the rest of Radiohead got some attention when they pulled their recent record from Spotify. A number of other artists have also been in the news, publicly complaining about streaming music services (Black Keys, Aimee Mann and David Lowery of Camper van Beethoven and Cracker). Bob Dylan, Metallica and Pink Floyd were longtime Spotify holdouts – until recently. I've pulled as much of my catalogue from Spotify as I can. AC/DC, Garth Brooks and Led Zeppelin have never agreed to be on these services in the first place.

So, what's the deal? What are these services, what do they do and why are these musicians complaining?

There are a number of ways to stream music online: Pandora is like a radio station that plays stuff you like but doesn't take requests; YouTube plays individual songs that folks and corporations have uploaded and Spotify is a music library that plays whatever you want (if they have it), whenever you want it. Some of these services only work when you're online, but some, like Spotify, allow you to download your playlist songs and carry them around. For many music listeners, the choice is obvious – why would you ever buy a CD or pay for a download when you can stream your favourite albums and artists either for free, or for a nominal monthly charge?

Not surprisingly, streaming looks to be the future of music consumption – it already is the future in Scandinavia, where Spotify (the largest streaming service) started, and in Spain. Other countries are following close behind. Spotify is the second largest source of digital music revenue for labels in Europe, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). Significantly, that's income for labels, not artists. There are other streaming services, too – Deezer, Google Play, Apple and Jimmy Iovine of Interscope has one coming called Daisy – though my guess is that, as with most web-based businesses, only one will be left standing in the end. There aren't two Facebooks or Amazons. Domination and monopoly is the name of the game in the web marketplace.

The amounts these services pay per stream is miniscule – their idea being that if enough people use the service those tiny grains of sand will pile up. Domination and ubiquity are therefore to be encouraged. We should readjust our values because in the web-based world we are told that monopoly is good for us. The major record labels usually siphon off most of this income, and then they dribble about 15-20% of what's left down to their artists. Indie labels are often a lot fairer – sometimes sharing the income 50/50. Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500, Damon & Naomi) has published abysmal data on payouts from Pandora and Spotify for his song "Tugboat" and Lowery even wrote a piece entitled "My Song Got Played on Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make from a Single T-shirt Sale!" For a band of four people that makes a 15% royalty from Spotify streams, it would take 236,549,020 streams for each person to earn a minimum wage of $15,080 (£9,435) a year. For perspective, Daft Punk's song of the summer, "Get Lucky", reached 104,760,000 Spotify streams by the end of August: the two Daft Punk guys stand to make somewhere around $13,000 each. Not bad, but remember this is just one song from a lengthy recording that took a lot of time and money to develop. That won't pay their bills if it's their principal source of income. And what happens to the bands who don't have massive international summer hits?

In future, if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services, they'll be out of work within a year. Some of us have other sources of income, such as live concerts, and some of us have reached the point where we can play to decent numbers of people because a record label believed in us at some point in the past. I can't deny that label-support gave me a leg up – though not every successful artist needs it. So, yes, I could conceivably survive, as I don't rely on the pittance that comes my way from music streaming, as could Yorke and some of the others. But up-and-coming artists don't have that advantage – some haven't got to the point where they can make a living on live performances and licensing, so what do they think of these services?

Some artists and indie musicians see Spotify fairly positively – as a way of getting noticed, of getting your music out there where folks can hear it risk free. Daniel Glass, of Glassnote records, who have the very popular band Mumford & Sons says: "When you have quality and you're in the sophomore stage of this band's career, I think the fear of holding it back is worse than letting it go. Opening up the faucet and letting people hear it, stream it and all that stuff is definitely very healthy." Cellist Zoë Keating sees it similarly: Spotify is "awesome as a listening platform. In my opinion artists should view it as a discovery service rather than a source of income." 

I can understand how having a place where people can listen to your work when they are told or read about it is helpful, but surely a lot of places already do that? I manage to check stuff out without using these services. I'll go directly to an artist's website, or Bandcamp, or even Amazon – and then, if I like what I hear, there is often the option to buy. Zoë also seems to assume there will be other sources of income (from recorded music). If these services fulfil their mandate, there won't be.

I also don't understand the claim of discovery that Spotify makes; the actual moment of discovery in most cases happens at the moment when someone else tells you about an artist or you read about them – not when you're on the streaming service listening to what you have read about (though Spotify does indeed have a "discovery" page that, like Pandora's algorithm, suggests artists you might like). There is also, I'm told, a way to see what your "friends" have on their playlists, though I'd be curious to know whether a significant number of people find new music in this way. I'd be even more curious if the folks who "discover" music on these services then go on to purchase it. Why would you click and go elsewhere and pay when the free version is sitting right in front of you? Am I crazy?

Aimee Mann performs at the Royal Festival Hall, London, Britain - 28 Jan 2013

Speaking out … Aimee Mann. Photograph: Jeff Barclay/Music Pics/Rex Fe

Artists often find this discovery argument seductive, but only up to a point. Patrick Carney of Black Keys said in 2011: "For unknown bands and smaller bands, it's a really good thing to get yourself out there. But for a band that makes a living selling music," streaming royalties are "not at a point yet to be feasible for us". How do you make the transition from "I'll give away anything to get noticed" to "Sorry, now you have to pay for my music"? Carney's implied point is important – the core issue is about sustainability; how can artists survive in the long term beyond that initial surge of interest?

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/oct/11/david-byrne-internet-content-world

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