Opinion: Streaming Services Are Merely a Red Herring - Community Week

David Byrne performing in Barcelona. Photo courtesy of Alterna2.

If you’ve spent last week consumed by all-things CMJ 2013 as much as we staffers here at BTR have, allow me to catch you up on the latest rabble-rousings in the ongoing debate between established rock stars and apologists for the ‘evil’ internet.

A little over a week ago, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne published another entry in his new op-ed column for British newspaper, The Guardian, titled “The internet will suck all creative content out of the world”. In it, Byrne skewers Spotify and others as the latest bubble just waiting to burst in the temporary fad of streaming music services, exemplifying both the best and worst qualities of his new soapbox diatribes. The best being that he couldn’t have better intentions or more agreeable ideas on how music shouldn’t operate, the worst being his overall ineptitude as a persuasive essayist.

Another somewhat embarrassing example is his inaugural edition of the column, titled, “If the 1 % stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here” — a nearly chuckle-worthy screed in which the post modern songwriter rails against the unsustainable income equality and cost of living in the cultural capitol of the Western Hemisphere. As with his Spotify editorial, he has many great points throughout the piece, it’s just too bad that he spends the first two paragraphs writing about the difference between the Big Apple and his current whereabouts in Venice, Italy.

A friend of mine, who is also a struggling artist in the tri-state area and casual Talking Heads fan, said it all in a comment when I posted the article on my Facebook wall: “1% lamenting the influence of the 1% is 99% of Manhattan.”

In fairness, not many of Byrne’s ilk are much better messengers for the true woes of today’s musical creatives. Last summer, Thom Yorke, along with longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich, set off a flurry on Twitter by lobbing disappointingly succinct assaults on Spotify, all in 140-characters-or-less.

It feels a bit unfair pulling apart their trite complaints in an essay format, but there’s little denying that Godrich and Yorke’s efforts to explain their critiques in any comprehensive fashion are slight at best; especially given how they both have played a significant role in the devaluation of music in ways that have put undiscovered musicians at a disadvantage.

[Insert a long and purposefully unflattering history of Radiohead’s 2007 album In Rainbows, in which the band — who had long benefited from major label backing and exposure — decided to sell their first self-released record with a controversial ‘pay-as-you-go’ model. If you’re having trouble imagining such a tired explanation, you can read Robert Smith’s equally brusque rantings on the subject here.]

Realizing the painfully lacking credibility that he or Godrich have in arguing that an increasingly influential music service doesn’t help emerging artists, Yorke switched targets in an interview with Mexican website Sopitas, claiming that Spotify is “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” By tacking to the high ground of the “down with the middle man that is the major label oligarchy!” position, Yorke can pretend that the intent of the In Rainbows distribution model and his positions on streaming services are in sync. When in reality, the former allowed the latter to even exist.

Here’s what I mean by that: While I can not prove that the founders of Spotify sat around listening to In Rainbows when they came up with the idea of selling an entire generation of recovering file sharers on paying pennies on the dollar to download an entire album, are we really all that surprised that one followed the other? That’s like saying without the television, laptops would still have been invented somehow. Yeah, tell that to the founders of YouTube — a far more ‘criminal’ enterprise than Spotify in terms of screwing content creators.

In Lamen’s terms, Dick Cheney wouldn’t make a much better spokesperson for gun control. The irony makes a former-punk-rock-Marxist-turned-suited-label-exec like Gang of Four’s David Allen sound like a voice of reason in rebuttal. Luckily for David Byrne, his legacy is far more worthy of carrying the mantle for poor, struggling musicians who still have to work day jobs to make ends meet. It’s just too bad his rhetoric stumbles nearly every step of the way.

Among the major lapses in making a truly compelling case against Spotify, Byrne’s op-ed posits a sensible sounding comparison to the impact that Netflix is having on television and film: “If, for instance, the future of the movie business comes to rely on the income from Netflix’s $8-a-month-streaming-service as a way to fund all films and TV production, then things will change very quickly.”

In context, Byrne is saying that these changes to TV and film will be wholly unwelcome to creatives, all when the opposite couldn’t be more true. I’ll let Kevin Spacey explain:

Admittedly, Spacey probably didn’t make these remarks with the interests of struggling young filmmakers in mind. If he did, there may have been some mention of Kickstarter. However, the success of the Netflix model makes a lot of fat-cat studio executives uneasy for a reason: They’ve made creativity more economically feasible than the fast food approach by, as Spacey so eloquently puts it, letting auteurs put more power in the hands of their audience.

As Yorke and Byrne demonstrate, the elite class of 20th Century art rockers have never been good at cultivating this relationship because to them, musicians and their prospective audience can hardly be considered allies whole sale. If they did, there may have been at least a few more Talking Heads reunion concerts than a measly Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, regardless of whether or not anyone in the band saw a red cent for it.

Whenever general success is by mediated by any kind of conglomerate — be it terrestrial radio, a major record label, a filter like Spotify or Netfix, or some combination — it is traditionally considered worrisome to the typically white, mostly upper middle-class, educated, guitar-strapped brand of indie rockers everywhere who may stand to financially benefit by it.

If that weren’t true, we might be able to entertain Kurt Cobain’s thoughts on the matter right now. It’s also why the many strata of underground hip-hop artists, who largely come from far more disadvantaged backgrounds, have no qualms about being discovered through similarly operating streaming services like DatPiff.

In essence, the problem with ideological rock stars who are supposedly looking out for the “little guy” is that they want to have their cake and eat it too, even if they insist it’s with these little people they want to share their cake with. They admire the leveled playing field and vaguely defined meritocracy that the internet has afforded emerging talent. Yet by the same token, they expect that the antiquated class system of the 20th Century music industry to be equally abolished in favor of an utopia where every aspiring Annie Clark can make as much as Byrne did in the 1970s without any third party mediation.

As an aspiring Annie Clark myself, I appreciate the thought (I mean, who doesn’t like more cake for everybody?) but that mentality hardly reflects reality.

Instead, what we have in the 2013 state of the industry is straight from Economics 101: In a market where the product has been drastically devalued thanks to technology, income inequality (exposure inequality, distribution inequality, etc.) has run rampant. It’s the same reason why Katy Perry’s last record has as many Billboard-chart topping hit songs as Michael Jackson’s Bad without coming within a football field of its sales. Sure, that’s not how things should be, but the implicit solutions to be discerned from the ire of those who are railing against these new changes in the system lack any pragmatism.

And is there any better reminder of what happens when out-of-touch ideologues posit their criticisms as solutions than the government shutdown of last week?

Of course, Byrne and Yorke are hardly the Ted Cruzes of music, in that they don’t have legislative power to change anything. But in the flawed histrionics of how the internet killed off the ‘middle man’ of major record labels — a theory popularized by many in Yorke, Godrich, and Byrne’s cohort who at least have the ability to court some knowledgeable public opinion — we’ve forgotten that what we’ve actually killed is any sustainable structure for that middle class of musicians who used to live between undiscovered independent-minded artists and the Rhiannas of the world.

Though Byrne does acknowledge this fact somewhat when he mentions the probability that his current touring mate, St. Vincent, may have to return to a desk job in order to pay her bills one day, he neglects to mention how those same mechanics of the Digital Age that challenge her livelihood also allowed her to be discovered in the first place.

In other words, the internet may have brought us Spotify, but it also brought us Pitchfork (as well as the “Pitchfork effect” for better or worse).

In which case, the mention of streaming services in these debates (or the embedded unfairness of the “recording industry”, in the case of David Allen’s op-ed) are all merely red herrings. The real problem is, of course, our outdated copyright system that has long encouraged legal and monetary inequity in the recording process. They also set the stage centuries ago for the exact sort of backdoor alliances between the major labels and streaming services that Yorke and Byrne are in every right to decry today. (For more on this subject, you can read my explanation of how copyright reform can help musicians here.)

It is a system that places songwriters and musicians at a distinct disadvantage as compared to filmmakers, which is why Kevin Spacey has no similar problems selling House of Cards to Netflix.

Thus it is not necessarily Spotify’s fault that in most cases they have to turn to the major labels, and not the artists themselves, for the rights to the back catalogs people are actually familiar with. Nor is it their fault that the vast majority of music listeners in the 21st Century want instant access to both long and short form media for as cheaply as possible, just as Netflix’s audience does. Spotify, Pandora, and the like are merely the outcome of that predictably increased demand.

Though Spotify’s critics are right to conclude that the platform will not and should not be popular for very long, their reasoning is usually either hypocritical or misinformed. Byrne may be right to say that Spotify doesn’t encourage discovery, but that hardly implicates all streaming services in the crime of keeping emerging artists from cracking the glass ceiling — just look at Bandcamp.

The truth of the matter is, Spotify — or something like it — absolutely represents the future of finding music of any kind on the internet. Any points to the contrary only leave open a window for the same ‘middle men’ left over from the old label model to represent the unassailable interests of the listener. When ‘blood sucking’ business men like David Allen are even furtively mentioning the importance of copyright to musicians while experienced auteurs like Byrne encourage an impetuous aversion to the Digital Age, we’ve got a problem.

When the inevitable occurs and a hybrid between Spotify, Pandora, and Bandcamp emerges — a musical equivalent to Netflix that equally promotes or even sponsors discovery by offering a quantifiable library of media that listeners are already familiar with (i.e. Pink Floyd’s back catalog) — then we very well may have a solution.

Until these millionaire rock stars with all the best intentions accept that inevitability and truly grasp who, or rather what, is the real enemy here, we’re getting no closer to bridging the gap between the disorder of what we have and the equity of what can be.

Obviously, even my vision of the future isn’t a perfect one. I, for one, can only hope that Washington and the world will consider copyright reform in time for musicians to actually benefit from such a transition before it is too late. But like the utopia that David Byrne and Thom Yorke admirably dream of, that is very wishful thinking.