Thom Yorke's Spotify Protest: Annoying, Not That Effective, and Still Important

By ditching the popular streaming service, the Radiohead singer and Nigel Godrich inconvenience fans. But that could help lead to needed change in the music industry.

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AP Photo/Joel Ryan

By now, musicians should know that Spotify probably won't make them rich. A year ago, for example, cellist Zoë Keating revealed that users of the service had streamed her songs 70,000 times... which translated into a $281.87 payout.

But on Sunday, the loudest, most prominent critique of the service yet unfolded on Twitter. There, Radiohead's singer Thom Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich said they'd pulled down songs from their non-Radiohead projects--Atoms for Peace, Ultraista, and Yorke's solo album The Eraser--to protest Spotify's system.

"The reason is that new artists get paid fuck all with this model," Godrich tweeted. "It's an equation that just doesn't work."

Glance at the feeds for the two musicians, and you'll sense a defensive tone--a sign that their move was not unanimously hailed as brave. Fans griped about losing access to songs they wanted to hear; critics in the industry characterized the decision as self-righteous, hypocritical, and unlikely to change anything. The hypocrisy accusation stems from the fact that in 2007 Radiohead shocked the music business with a pay-what-you-want sale for their album In Rainbows. At the time, some praised the band for putting forth a revolutionary model to be imitated, while others saw a publicity stunt that could only be attempted by an act as rich and famous as Radiohead. Either way, In Rainbows' "collection plate" approach helped cement the notion that the music industry should embrace listeners' growing addiction to getting music for free or very, very cheap.

"for me In Rainbows was a statement of trust," Yorke tweeted Sunday. "people still value new music ..that's all we'd like from Spotify. don't make us the target." In reply to a follower who had complained, "your small meaningless rebellion is only hurting your fans ... a drop in the bucket really," he replied "No we're standing up for our fellow musicians."

There's probably some truth to the "drop in the bucket" line. Spotify may be a game-changing startup, but as Yorke and Godrich pointed out on Twitter, it's now tied up with major, multinational recording companies. People have made big bets on it and services like it being integral to the future of music, and those people aren't likely to abandon it now. Yorke and Godrich's resources and clout allow them to call out streaming apps, but most newbie artists who are just signing their first record contracts will still be compelled to accept the "fuck all" deal Godrich mentioned.

Yorke and Godrich's rejection of Spotify matters, though, for the simple reason that it screws with the service's appeal. I'm a big Spotify user, and I pay $9.99 a month for a premium subscription. (People can listen for free on their home computers as long as they're willing to sit through ads). I like feeling as though all of recorded music is at my beckon, anytime and anywhere. Of course, all of recorded music isn't actually at my beckon, and there are annoying gaps in Spotify's catalog--like, uh, The Beatles. But weirdly, almost insidiously, you adapt. The awesome electronic artist Four Tet tweeted yesterday that he's withheld his label's music from the service for a long time. Which reminded me--I haven't listened to Four Tet in a while... and that's probably because most of his stuff isn't on Spotify.

Atoms for Peace is nobody's favorite band; it's more a curious side project from the leader of a lot of peoples' favorite band (plus Flea). By opting out, Yorke and Godrich won't shatter the illusion of comprehensiveness that Spotify thrives on. But they'll dent it. I'd been meaning to add the hypnotic title track off Atoms for Peace's otherwise so-so new album Amok to my playlist of 2013's best songs. Now I can't--unless I legally or illegally download the album on my own, which is something I've fallen out of the habit of doing. (That sounds super lazy, and it is, but it's also the dynamic that rules much of music-listening these days.) Spotify therefore feels a little less satisfying, complete, worthwhile to me.

The bigger effect of Yorke and Godrich's move may just be to raise awareness. To anyone who follows the music industry, it seems like common knowledge that artists make only fractions of fractions of a cent every time one of their songs gets streamed. But when Radiohead fan site Ateaseweb posted on Facebook about Atoms for Peace ditching Spotify, readers wanted to learn more. "Can someone out there explain the nuts and bolts of this," one fan wrote. "I would like just a little more info on how Spotify is damaging new artists and how this is any worse than illegal downloads." Another fan soon came along with the requested nuts and bolts, and another with a link to Pitchfork's essential explainer article.

Spotify has already responded to Yorke and Godrich by pointing out it'll have paid out $1 billion to rights holders by the end of the year. But the top-line number arguably matters a lot less to the future of music than the amount that each individual artist takes home. And it's still not clear whether an equation yet exists that will make that amount "fair." As Derek Thompson noted in response to musician David Lowery's high-profile complaints about streaming--this time related to Pandora--even if the online radio site "quadrupled the royalty rates paid to Lowery, it'd barely pay for three days rent."

Yorke and co. haven't yet offered a solution to this state of affairs. But they've nevertheless offered something valuable: a reminder that a lot of musicians are unhappy with the status quo, and that some musicians have the power to make fans unhappy with it too.