Over the weekend, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and longtime producer Nigel Godrich launched one small strike against Spotify: they removed recent releases from the music streaming service to protest Spotify's business model and measly artist royalties. "The music industry is being taken over by the back door," Godrich tweeted, "and if we don't try and make it fair for new music producers and artists... then the art will suffer."
Yorke and Godrich are mounting a "small meaningless rebellion" against Spotify in part because they can rebel against Spotify. Success and exposure—of the sort that eludes the overwhelming majority of artists you'll find on Spotify and Pandora—is theirs, and by pulling two albums from Spotify, they have caused their fanbase only a minor inconvenience at no harm to their livelihoods. Nor is there much risk involved. If and when they choose to relent (whether or not Spotify changes its model), they will be welcomed back to the service without consequence, just as Pearl Jam quietly began reusing Ticketmaster in 1998 after launching a vicious boycott of the sales company in 1994. And that was a far more radical business move—it largely kept the band from touring in the U.S. for three years, a boycott Pearl Jam could withstand because, well, they were Pearl Jam.
So Yorke and Godrich, who by most accounts aren't going hungry for want of royalties, end up speaking for the underdogs—the ones whose names you won't recognize, but who could really use the cash. They seem to realize this. Yorke tweeted over the weekend in support of the "new artists you discover on #Spotify":
Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will no get paid. meanwhile shareholders will shortly being rolling in it. Simples.— Thom Yorke (@thomyorke) July 14, 2013
Plus people are scared to speak up or not take part as they are told they will lose invaluable exposure if they don't play ball. Meanwhile..— nigel godrich (@nigelgod) July 14, 2013
He might be on to something. Yorke and Nigel's stance is admirable, for the attention it has grabbed and the conversations it has sparked. But in these brave new rules of the music industry, waging boycotts is the domain of the powerful and elite. And maybe that's fine and good; they grab the headlines, and they've got little to lose in their activism.
But whether that effects change for all artists remains to be seen, because the younger, burgeoning artists won't follow. Not many of them, at least. The reason is simple. For too many artists, exposure—in this case, Spotify plays nestled between 30-second advertisements—has become a more viable currency than monetary compensation, which is presumed to come with the territory (but often doesn't). Plus, new artists don't have the storied back catalogues to rely on when keeping new releases from streaming services. Most of all, young artists are afraid to be labeled luddites—and get locked out of what Spotify has branded, accurately or not, as the music listening model of the future.
Here, take a look at the artists TIME identifies as having stirred the great Spotify pot in the past year or so:
The Black Keys’ latest album isn’t available on Spotify, and band drummer Patrick Carney has said the service is fairer to labels than to artists. Alt-country star Jason Isbell called Spotify “evil” in a May interview with the New York Times. Last fall indie rock band Grizzly Bear tweeted that fans streaming songs through Spotify is about as helpful to a band as downloading music illegally through the now defunct piracy haven LimeWire. And many big artists of decades past, from Led Zeppelin to The Beatles to Garth Brooks, have never allowed their music on the service.
All household names, pretty much, excepting Jason Isbell. (While not millionaires, as New York magazine's Nitsuh Abebe extensively chronicled in 2012, Grizzly Bear can reasonably assume its fanbase would seek out the band's music elsewhere if it weren't on Spotify, which it is.) Meanwhile, members of Pink Floyd, another huge name, penned a USA Today column last month outlining their opposition to Pandora's digital radio model.
Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 and Damon and Naomi, who discussed Spotify's business model last year in an illuminating Pitchfork column called Making Cents, isn't surprised by the trend.
"Most musicians want their music heard—that's why they play music—so preventing people from hearing it is counterproductive," Krukowski explained via email. His proposed solution is unorthodox: "Make all online access free. There's no reason Spotify, Pandora, and Apple should take all the money rather than artists, except that they are the gatekeepers." Admittedly that won't solve the issue of paying artists, "but at least it stops the current situation of our fans paying third parties for access to our music."
Shawn Parke, an electronic composer in Portland who runs a small label and licensing company, concurred with Krukowski's reasoning. When his remix of Mirah's "Nobody Has To Stay" amassed 3.5 million plays on Pandora in early 2012, he was compensated $48 by his performing rights organization, ASCAP. He wasn't happy with the sum; but nor did he choose to speak up.
"For me, it really is a matter of, 'Well, 3.5 million people heard my track,'" Parke explained. "That's a good thing because it's exposure to my work, and I'm not making a living wage doing this. So the more people hear my music or hear my name, the more attention can be brought to my work."
Parke compared it to having his music played on college radio. Except that, traditionally, when your song is played on the radio, a listener has to pay money to hear the rest of the album. Not so with Spotify.
The irony, as Krukowski untangled in Making Cents, is that services like Spotify and Pandora aren't exactly rolling in dough themselves. (Spotify's 2012 report "revealed a loss in 2011 of $56 million.") Rather, they're setting models and building speculative capital:
These aren't record companies—they don't make records, or anything else; apparently not even income. They exist to attract speculative capital. And for those who have a claim to ownership of that capital, they are earning millions—in 2012, Pandora's executives sold $63 million of personal stock in the company. Or as Spotify's CEO Daniel Ek has put it, "The question of when we'll be profitable actually feels irrelevant. Our focus is all on growth. That is priority one, two, three, four and five."
The system places Spotify well outside the conventional industry norm of creating and manufacturing music and selling it for more than it cost to make. ("Music itself seems to be irrelevant to these businesses—it is just another form of information," Krukowski cynically concluded in his piece.) So labels have scrambled to adapt to the new order; many, as TIME noted, retain ownership over their artists' music and can decide to put it on Spotify whether the artist wants it there or not.
But some record labels have a more ambivalent relationship with the streaming services. The Chicago-based Drag City, for instance, whose roster includes Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan, and Silver Jews, doesn't make its music available on Spotify. And until fairly recently, Barsuk Records, an independent label based in Seattle, declined to deliver its catalog to streaming services. Yet as Spotify expanded, the label decided to experiment with it. Josh Rosenfeld, who co-founded the label in 1998 and still manages it today, explained that Spotify doesn't generate enough revenue to be the foundation of Barsuk's business model, but there could be a path of growth.
"If the subscription models can grow faster than they contribute to erosion of the current foundational revenues for our business, then we have the potential for a sustainable business model," Rosenfeld wrote in an email to The Atlantic Wire. Still, Barsuk doesn't require its artists, who include Menomena, Ra Ra Riot, and Yellow Ostrich, to have their music on Spotify.
But most are there anyway.
"The smaller the profile of an artist, the more likely that artist is to feel that it's essential to have his or her music available in all places where listeners are listening," Rosenfeld explained. "The larger the profile of the artist, the more likely he or she is to be inclined to believe that listeners will go out of their way to acquire the artist's music. Similarly, the more financially secure the artist is, the less concerned the artist is with making sure to cover all bases when it comes to collecting royalties." Plus, the larger the artist is, "the more likely the artist is to find appeal in 'making a statement' to draw attention to his or her own instances of iconoclasm at the risk of income loss."
Enter Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich and Pearl Jam, self-declared saviors of the Common Band.
Exposure, in other words, has become even more viable currency in the Spotify era than it's always been. The system is such that bands work desperately for nothing in hopes of exposure that will afford them the privilege of working desperately for little more than nothing. Maybe eventually they'll make it huge and make—well, less than you probably expect. Nitsuh Abebe tracked this phenomenon in his aforementioned Grizzly Bear profile:
For much of the late-twentieth century, you might have assumed that musicians with a top-twenty sales week and a Radio City show—say, the U2 tour in 1984, after The Unforgettable Fire—made at least as much as their dentists. Those days are long and irretrievably gone, but some of the mental habits linger. “People probably have an inflated idea of what we make,” says [Grizzly Bear member Ed] Droste. “Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one’s buying records."
Spotify, of course, appears to offer the exposure it takes to be the next Grizzly Bear. In some ways, it's the musical iteration of recent controversies in online journalism and the internship world, where writers and interns are compelled to work for free for "exposure," connections, and experience. The difference is that established editors and companies aren't exactly sounding the alarm—they're the ones benefiting from the system.
But some independent artists are thrilled to make their music available, whether or not it makes them famous.
"I have one of my recordings on Spotify," said Ben Seretan, a Brooklyn-based songwriter and guitarist. "And the dozen or so times I've told somebody, 'Yes, my music is on Spotify' and then pulled out my phone to show them that it's actually there—that alone will prevent me from 'rebelling' against this thing."
Thom Yorke, for his part, might consider how Radiohead's game-changing 2007 move to make In Rainbows available for whatever price fans chose helped get us here in the first place.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.