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Thom Yorke vs Spotify: Hail To The Thief?

Jul 23, 2013

Anyone who is an active part of the music community has no doubt spent at least a few hours over the past week or so debating the merits of Thom Yorke’s decision to pull his solo record and Atoms For Peace project from Spotifty, and then lashing out at them via Twitter.

The crux of his Tweet-rant was, “Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will not get paid. Meanwhile shareholders will shortly being rolling in it. Simples.” Nigel Godrich also added “The music industry is being taken over by the back door.”

At face value, this seems like a great moment in music history, as some of the biggest artists in the world are standing up to the corporate giants, looking out for smaller bands, and trying to show everyone the shortcomings of such a service. The only problem is, in nearly every case, the argument is completely off-base, as Yorke and Godrich have ignored and skewed a handful of rather large facts.

First and foremost, the amount of pay smaller bands get is somewhere in the neighborhood of .03 cents per play. At first glance, that is an almost impossibly small amount to consider, but the reality is, it is NOT exclusive to Spotify. Whether it’s iTunes, Rdio, Amazon, or even YouTube videos, the average holds. The fact that Yorke and Godrich have decided to single out Spotify makes very little sense considering this fact, as their music is still available on the other services, with the amount the band gets paid even less in some cases.

Also, don’t forget that before the music in question could be streamed on Spotify, Yorke and his band had to agree to a contract. Within that contract were the figures that the artists would be paid, so for Yorke to act as if this was some sort of a surprise is a rather disingenuous act. If he didn’t like the compensation, he could just as easily denied the service the rights to host the music. It’s not like these services post the music without permission, so it is hardly, as they stated a “back door” type of situation. At some level, it really is that simple.

When you step back and look at things, these two points are where the core of the problem lies, as Yorke’s reasoning for having his music on Spotify is likely far different than that of the smaller bands he is trying to “protect” with his statements. It comes down to one easily stated, but massively important distinction: getting exposure versus getting rich.

For smaller bands, they have to be on every streaming service possible from BandCamp to Spotify to YouTube, as there are different musical audiences on each platform, and to be absent from one leaves them at a disadvantage in terms of getting as wide a range of exposure as possible. These bands are just trying to get their names out there, and things like the “related videos” on YouTube, and apps like SongKick on Spotify give them “free” publicity and visibility that they would not otherwise have.

This is much the same idea that twenty years ago, bands had to have their music available on cassette tape, compact disc, and in many cases, vinyl as well. There were different groups of listeners to cater to, and failing to be available to one of them only alienated a group of fans and in the end, the band were the ones who suffered.

Sure, in an ideal universe, these bands want to be able to make a living and then some off of their music, but given the current financial realities of these services, it’s about exposure. Perhaps what’s really upsetting Thom Yorke is that the royalty payments he gets from places like Spotify aren’t big enough for him, so he just assumes that every artist on the service is only there to make money.

But, what Yorke also fails to recognize is the business and cultural elements at play with the rise of streaming music, and perhaps more than anything, this is where his argument fails to hold any water whatsoever.

Spotify uses the most common internet business model: hook them with something free, then slowly get them transitioned to a paid service. We can all remember the days of ad-less Facebook and YouTube, Twitter without “promoted posts,” and when the Tumblr radar was actually something of interest; but as these companies grew, finding ways to monetize became essential to their survival. Taking this a step further, as more and more users begin to pay for services like Spotify, the company will have more money to pass along to artists.

Yorke even makes note of this reality, as his initial Tweet said that “soon” the shareholders will be “rolling in it” financially, so clearly he is aware that the company isn’t exactly turning massive profits and just not paying the artists in question. Perhaps a bit of patience on Yorke’s part would have been a more fitting way to handle his frustration.

However, the biggest reality of all that Yorke and Godrich overlooked in their campaign for more money is the fact that thanks to things like Spotify, they’re actually getting paid AT ALL. Countless studies from the past few years have clearly shown that as usage of services (whether paid or unpaid) like Spotify and YouTube increase, the amount of illegal downloading drops drastically. Or to put it another way, services like these ensure that the artists in question get paid something as opposed to nothing.

A final note is that Godrich added to his comments, “listening to Spotify instead of buying records in 1973…I doubt very much if Dark Side [of the Moon] would have been made. It would just be too expensive.” This to me shows the true nature of the problem: the artists in question have not fully moved with the times. In the current reality, for the price of a decent laptop and some USB equipment, anyone can record an album that sounds great with very few restrictions. Bands that still spend six and seven figures on the recording process have clearly lost touch with reality, and in the case of the Pink Floyd classic, like most albums, their record label advanced them a majority of the money for the recording sessions in question.

In his defense, Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich did do the music-loving-public a favor by pointing out just how little bands are making from streaming services, but they failed to acknowledge that not only are they personally light-years away from smaller bands, but that it is a maturing new delivery system, the kinks of which still need to be ironed out. The early days of commercial radio were very similar, but after it became the standard, the scales were evened so that all involved could make enough to be content.

In this case, time will certainly have the same impact, but hopefully Yorke keeps quiet for awhile, as his “I need another few cents per song” whine is rather reminiscent of another musician who rallied against new technology they didn’t quite understand just over a decade ago; and nobody wants to see another Lars Ulrich.

Image: WLOY

Image: Spotify

Joel Freimark hosts a daily music-related webseries HERE and you can follow his daily music musings and suggestions HERE as well.


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