I can’t decide whether Thom Yorke is a petulant child, cynical operator, or a hero to artists. Maybe he’s all three.
On July 14, Yorke declared war on Spotify, removing from the popular streaming service his solo music and that of his experimental band Atoms for Peace. On Twitter he and producer Nigel Godrich complained that Spotify rips off artists through poor royalty rates. “Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will no[t] get paid,” Yorke tweeted. He also claimed to be “standing up for our fellow musicians.”
And then a few days later, Yorke put his weight behind music platform soundhalo, which will sell video content (in near real-time) from Atoms for Peace concerts occurring July 25 and 26 at London’s Roundhouse.
Yorke’s actions have renewed an ongoing debate about what constitutes fair compensation for artists from streaming services like Spotify — and have also caused some backlash from pundits. When Yorke came out swinging against Spotify initially, music veteran Bob Lefsetz accused him of whining, clinging to the past, and fighting a streaming service that has given listeners a credible alternative to illegal downloading. As Lefestz wrote, “Once upon a time musicians used to lead. Now all they can say is GIVE ME BACK MY PAST! As for saving the future for the new artists . . . I’d feel better if the new artists created their own paradigm, but instead we’ve got wannabes too dumb to do anything for themselves.”
And when Yorke turned around and backed soundhalo, Tim Worstall of Forbes complained that Yorke had turned his anti-Spotify rant into nothing more than a PR stunt to promote his own preferred music distribution method, soundhalo.
This much I know:
- Neither Atoms for Peace nor soundhalo had been on my radar screen until now. Make no mistake: the superstar band (which also includes musicians such as Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and the fledgling service have gained a spike in awareness within just a few days. You just cannot buy this kind of attention, and all because the most prominent member of superstar band Radiohead went on a Twitter rant.
- But the debate over fair compensation for artists has been renewed, too. Certainly Yorke is not the first artist to complain — the Black Keys have also famously railed against Spotify. Other lesser-known artists such as Sam Duckworth have supported Yorke and have claimed to be ripped off by the streaming service, and it’s easy to find criticisms flying on Twitter as well as thoughtful analysis of streaming revenues from the likes of Future of Music Coalition. To artists like Duckworth, Yorke is a crusader. For its part, Spotify claims to have paid more than $500 million to rights holders thus far and is “100% committed to making Spotify the most artist-friendly music service possible.” And as Glenn Peoples of Billboard observes in the print edition of Billboard, “The value of subscription services goes beyond royalties . . . they have promotional value. Giving fans the opportunity to legally access an artist’s music on the service of their choice is arguably better than preventing that access (Billboard, “Subscribing to the Future,” 6 July 2013).”
Would anyone have given a lesser-known artist like Sam Duckworth the time of day to tell his story had Thom Yorke not spoken out? Did you even know who Sam Duckworth was or that his 2011 release The Mannequin was well received by allmusic.com? I sure didn’t until this week.
The ongoing conversation about Spotify and streaming services is good. It’s healthy. Artists need to be heard. So do all the stakeholders in the distribution of music — including you and me, the listeners. So let us render unto Thom Yorke the publicity and some scorn that he has earned — and be glad that he’s cast a spotlight on the artists who are trying to become the next Thom Yorke.
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