Spotify has received some high profile criticism recently, but is the streaming really killing the music industry? Buster Stonham gives his opinion.
Last week Spotify celebrated its fifth birthday, but not everyone was in the mood for a party. The music streaming service has come under fire from two high profile artists in recent weeks.
Firstly, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke pulled all the tracks from his side project Atoms for Peace from Spotify, in protest at what he saw as the meagre payout that the service provides for artists. He and bandmate Nigel Godrich attacked Spotify for being detrimental to emerging artists, describing the music streaming giants as ‘the last desperate fart of a dying corpse’, referring to the traditional music industry.
More recently David Byrne of Talking Heads has condemned all streaming services for stifling artistic creativity and eventually forcing emerging musicians to ‘find employment elsewhere or change what they do to make more money’. Byrne also questions whether the availability of free music online genuinely allows people to discover new artists.
Hearing two such talented and experienced artists whose wok I personally admire greatly making such strong criticisms of music streaming has encouraged me to think more deeply about what effect they are having on the music industry. However, I do believe they are wrong about streaming and missing the positive impact of new technologies.
The fact that it is inevitably established artists complaining about streaming smacks a little of sour grapes at their shrinking royalty cheques. Yorke especially is no stranger to using new technology to promote his music. For the release of Amok, his first album with Atoms for Peace, Yorke hosted a Reddit AmA and shared a free stream of the album. Furthermore, in 2007 Radiohead famously allowed fans to pay what they wanted for their seventh album In Rainbows. By choosing to make use of streaming when it suits him, Yorke seems to be throwing his toys out of the pram somewhat.
It is interesting to note that established artists like Byrne and Yorke frequently claim to be defending emerging musicians against Spotify, but these musicians rarely speak out themselves on the evils of streaming services. Instead most realise the importance of getting their music out there to reach potential new fans, and primarily make their money through other means, such as live shows, merchandise and endorsement opportunities.
In fact, many emerging artists are embracing the freedom and increased exposure that making music available for free online gives them. Grime artists like JME for instance have built a major fanbase online without following the traditional path of signing to major labels. By making his tracks available for free on YouTube and streaming services JME has undoubtedly been able to reach a much wider audience, and has increased his income by selling a range of T-shirts.
This gets to the heart of the argument over Spotify. Yorke and Byrne have blasted the service for exploiting musicians, but this is nothing new. Musicians have always been given a raw deal in terms of earning money from their music. Admittedly, Spotify does currently pay a poultry sum to artists, but just because this is the case now does not mean it will always be so. As streaming becomes bigger, advertisers will inevitably follow and revenues increase.
Taking things a step further, music streaming may even work to empower emerging artists and end the grip that big labels currently have over musicians. The internet has brought artists closer to their fans, allowing them to communicate directly through social media and share their music easily and for free. Spotify could extend this relationship and support emerging artists by not only allowing them to stream their own music directly, but to record and market their albums.
This would allow musicians to maintain their creative freedom and mean that the revenue from streaming could go directly to the artists. This process has already begun and the vast majority of new artists seem to see the benefits of being on streaming services for their future career, rather than risking remaining undiscovered.
Music streaming may even work to empower emerging artists and end the grip that big labels currently have over musicians.
To see an example of this model already in action we need look no further than the world of online video. YouTube used to be a place that TV companies fought to keep their content from. But by offering decent revenues from advertising and providing tools and investment for creators, such as the YouTube Original Channels programme, the platform has attracted high profile names from the world of TV, such as Jamie Oliver and Ricky Gervais, as well as independent creators who have made their name on YouTube itself.
To see Spotify as the YouTube of music streaming is a step that could genuinely change music. By dealing directly with artists it could become a place where musicians can record, distribute and market their own music, allowing them to earn enough to make a proper career from music. This would not only be a benefit for emerging artists, but for creativity across the creative industries.
Spotify may even now be big enough to fundamentally redefine the way the music industry works, much like YouTube has done for video. Whether it chooses to or not remains to be seen, but streaming is here to stay and should be seen, not as part of the problem, but part of the solution.
What do you think? Is Spotify killing music or does it represent an exciting future for emerging musicians? Leave a comment below.
Follow Buster on Twitter @BusterStonham