The recent announcement, via Twitter, that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and his producer Nigel Godrich are quitting Spotify raises once again the issue of business models in the arts, and in this case, music. We are talking here about an innovative musician who over the years has explored models such as the radical disintermediation or the pay-what-you-want model with notable success, and who is now waging what he calls a “small, meaningless rebellion” by withdrawing some of his solo work from Spotify, such as his album The Eraser, his experimental Atoms for Peace, and the debut album of Godrich’s band Ultraísta, in protest at a business model that pays artists less than half a cent each time it plays their material, and which is simply a perpetuation of the music industry’s traditional practices.
Yorke and Godrich’s small rebellion should be seen for what it is: not a protest against new business models for the music industry, but the grip that the old system continues to hold, as Nigel Godrich lucidly explains:
Make no mistake: these are all the same old industry bods trying to get a stranglehold on the delivery system. The numbers don’t even add up for Spotify yet. But it’s not about that. It’s about establishing the model which will be extremely valuable. Meanwhile small labels and new artists can’t even keep their lights on. It’s just not right”
Yorke and Godrich are protesting against a model that allows the music industry, which now consists of just four major players, and will soon be down to three, to cut secret deals with Spotify, becoming a shareholder in the company in exchange for earning a disproportionate part of the earnings produced by the artists signed to them. This is a model that only makes sense for a musician if he or she is able to build up a huge catalogue of material, and one that pays ridiculous amounts of money if you are an independent or trying to launch your career with just a few songs.
Let’s be clear on this: Spotify is in no way representative of new business models for music; it is instead a defensive response by the same people who earned money from the previous model to try to make a profit through new channels. Spotify’s Daniel Ek in no way has been disruptive, and in reality is just another conformist, someone who had to pact with the Devil in order to get access to the required inventory, and now is just trying to replicate on the web a similar model to that which already existed.
New models cannot depend on a doorman to decide who enters and who not, as is the case with Spotify: new models must be open, with no toll fees, providing users with all kinds of options: free-to-hear, with no advertising, pay-to-hear streaming, downloads, no flat fees, etc; their prices must be reasonable, and with the role of the middleman reduced to a minimum, rather than controlled by companies who are holding onto the position they established during the “hungry years” and that refuse to budge, forcing new artists to sign the contracts they write, and with no ability to negotiate.
In the new model, decisions as to what we listen to or stop listening to are not decided on the basis of agreements between advertising executives, but rather on processes that users themselves establish. But we have a long road to travel before we see this happen, along with a lot more “small, meaningless rebellions” such as Yorke and Godrich’s. It is hard to believe that this gesture will inspire other artists to boycott Spotify. But to be perfectly honest, were it to do so, it would be no bad thing.