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David Byrne; Dave Allen

Talking Heads: debating the Spotify “rental” market

David Byrne; Dave Allen

David Byrne; Dave Allen

I am reading Paul Riismandel’s summary of Day One of the Future of Music Summit. It appears that all digital music policy discussion roads lead to Spotify. “It seemed like every [FOMS] conversation that dealt even a little bit with royalty payments and artist income always veered back to Spotify,” Paul notes. “On this there was nothing close to any sort of unanimous opinion, though the discussion and debate was respectful.”

Somewhat less so was the recent dialogue between David Byrne and Dave Allen over the famous (or infamous) Swedish service.

“The internet will suck all creative content out of the world,” Byrne dramatically declares (hint: he doesn’t like Spotify).

“Appearing to be elitist and Luddite is not a good way to win over today’s music fans to one’s cause;” Allen responds, “let’s leave that to be the historical legacy of the RIAA.”

But the Byrne/Allen debate does spark an interesting historical question, at least for me. Can a new communications technology create a new market without wrecking an extant one? David Byrne would appear to say no, essentially calling Spotify and similar services (Pandora?) legalized versions of Napster and Pirate Bay. He continues:

“In future, if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services, they’ll be out of work within a year. Some of us have other sources of income, such as live concerts, and some of us have reached the point where we can play to decent numbers of people because a record label believed in us at some point in the past. I can’t deny that label-support gave me a leg up – though not every successful artist needs it. So, yes, I could conceivably survive, as I don’t rely on the pittance that comes my way from music streaming, as could Yorke and some of the others. But up-and-coming artists don’t have that advantage – some haven’t got to the point where they can make a living on live performances and licensing, so what do they think of these services?”

Allen doesn’t really argue with Byrne. He just says Spotify is here and that’s that:

“It is not hyperbole to suggest that this generation’s music fans want to rent their music, not own it. Spotify may not have created that shift but they certainly provided a solution to easy access, mobile music streaming. They simply saw consumer demand, just as any company in any marketplace could determine. I am certain that Spotify would want every single music fan on their service to pay the monthly subscription, but is it their fault if we choose not to do that and listen to the ad-supported version instead?”

Actually, it appears that Spotify et. al. did create that shift. They did not just “see” consumer demand, they enabled it. They used technology to replace an ownership market with what Allen correctly calls a rental market. And although we can always appropriately point to the labels as a culprit when it comes to shortchanging musicians, royalty-wise, it is possible that Spotify and Pandora have made an already bad situation for many artists even worse by developing a “rental” market in which consumers pay minimal “rent” in the form of watching and listening to ads.

I can see ways out of this dilemma for musicians, but they’re going to take a while to implement (Paul’s got some great ideas, BTW). In the meantime there’s a reason why I never admiringly use the adjective “disruptive” in my posts. I tend to sympathize with the disrupted, not the disruptors.

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