Over the weekend Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich (of Atoms For Peace) each wrote a series of tweets about pulling their music from Spotify. You should read them all. Their main reason wasn’t their own financial well-being, but that of younger artists trying to find a place as working musicians. They argue that the current system rewards larger acts and corporate shareholders, but doesn’t pay emerging acts.
They’re not wrong.
Slings and arrows came out on both sides of what is becoming a pretty tired argument. There are absolutists on each side. Streaming is terrible or streaming is the future. It’s time we start looking for the path forward that works for all of us, and stop arguing from standpoints that leave no room for movement.
Godrich and Yorke not only have the right to pull out from these services, they’re also right that streaming hurts emerging musicians. That argument is weakly countered with arguments about exposure, total pay-outs by streaming companies, or the idea that there’s no better rate to be found, so fuck it, we’re tossing our hands up and giving up.
There’s the good argument that musicians’ income doesn’t hinge on sales anymore. And that’s true, except when it’s not. For many musicians outside the mainstream or in the earlier stages of their careers, selling matters. Music and merch sales mean everything when your life is lived in a cramped van or when you’re trying to convince someone your work is worthy of their time. The bottom line is that sales matter, and in a stream-only world there’s nothing to help get new artists off the ground.
I’d argue that exposure and discovery aren’t worth a thing if you’re not driving the attention back to a place where the artist can take advantage of it. My hope is that services like Spotify begin to look at artists as partners, realizing the long-term health of each is now tied together. With no new music, Spotify dies. With no mass audience, we set an all-too-low ceiling for working musicians.
People like to say the rate is as good as it’s going to get. That may be true, but it doesn’t mean we should stop looking for other ideas. In an ideal scenario, Spotify et al would give artists the ability to add and control buy buttons, letting them sell records and merch directly from within the system. Control is an important part. The artist needs to be able to control where those buttons lead, driving traffic to the thing that saves their lives — be it vinyl, shirts, tickets, or even just simple email signups.
This should be controlled at the service level, not through a central clearinghouse. Introducing another gate at which 15-20% can be levied against the artist in transaction isn’t the answer. Limiting access to customers of one direct sales or ticketing platform isn’t the answer. Working with musicians to create a controlled environment where the most dedicated fans can directly support them — in the way the artist sees fit — is the most healthy thing that can be done. Suddenly all the arguments about discovery and exposure carry weight, and you’ve created an ecosystem where real growth can happen.
And if you think Godrich and Yorke pulling their music was a statement, imagine how much more impact it would have if they were returning to Spotify because their issues were addressed.