David Byrne Predicts the End of the World

19th Nervous BreakdownIn a truly depresso screed in The Guardian, Renaissance man David Byrne laments the sad state of the music industry. If free or cheap digital streaming services are allowed to become our sole source of recorded music, as Byrne predicts, “the inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.”

Take that, Spotify!

David seems convinced that the music industry is being co-opted and monopolized by the insidious streaming delivery services, which in turn threaten artists’ livelihood, resulting in the total collapse of Western civilization. Perhaps he’s just in the grip of that dreaded Celtic melancholia, I don’t know.

In all seriousness, I can see where he’s coming from, and I share his concern and applaud his support of a vibrant, ethical musical scene—it’s good to see a successful artist paying it forward. But I think his highly charged rhetoric is a bit too strident. (For an alternate, but equally vehement, take on the Downfall of Music Thanks to Spotify, read veteran axeman Steve Lukather’s comments here.) As much as I respect David Byrne as an artist, I find it difficult to warm up to his apocalyptic vision of a future devoid of creativity.

Same As It Ever Was

His primary concern is that while record labels are raking in profits by licensing material to Spotify (a streaming music service), they are tossing mere crumbs to their artists. Byrne cites some truly horrific figures to prove his point: “Daft Punk’s song of the summer, ‘Get Lucky,’ reached 104,760,000 Spotify streams by the end of August: the two Daft Punk guys stand to make somewhere around $13,000 each. Not bad, but remember this is just one song from a lengthy recording that took a lot of time and money to develop. That won’t pay their bills if it’s their principal source of income. And what happens to the bands who don’t have massive international summer hits?”

I’ve been a working musician without a “massive international summer hit” (or as Little Feat put it: “I did my time in that rodeo, it’s been so long and I’ve got nothin’ to show”), so I feel qualified to respond. They’ll do what they’ve always done: carry on. They’ll keep humpin’ it (and if they’re smart, they won’t quit their day jobs). Maybe they’ll “make it,” maybe they won’t. Even commercially successful artists ride a wicked bell curve—and most ultimately find themselves playing the club circuit and county fairs to pay the rent.

Such is life. If you had wanted a six-figure income and matching retirement portfolio, you should have listened to your mother and become a doctor, lawyer, day trader, or computer programmer (preferably with a top-secret clearance). You chose to be an artist. The stereotype of the “starving artist” is firmly grounded in fact and it’s nothing new. As Byrne surely knows, it’s the “same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was… .”

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

SpotifyAs I see it, Byrne’s argument is based on a false premise. He believes Spotify (or some other streaming music service) will evolve into an Amazon-like behemoth and become the go-to source for music, thereby nullifying the sale of CDs and other forms of paid content (“streaming looks to be the future of music consumption”). His seemingly logical conclusion is dire: “In future, if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services, they’ll be out of work within a year.”

That’s a very big “if.” It’s the second time he’s trotted out this fatalistic prognosis (“That won’t pay their bills if it’s their principal source of income.” [emphasis mine]), and like the chorus in a song, he’ll hammer it home a couple more times before he’s through, just to be sure you got the message. But there’s a major flaw in his reasoning: clear-eyed, serious, working musicians don’t expect to make a decent living off of their airplay or CD sales alone—they gig to supplement their income, and yes, some even hold down jobs to bring home the bacon. In the Real World, you do what you’ve got to do.

Byrne’s projected omnipotence of Spotify is also questionable. Truth is, we just don’t know. The digital marketplace is an extremely volatile shape-shifting beast—today’s innovation is tomorrow’s fish wrap.

The World Keep On Turnin’

As I have said before (and will no doubt have cause to say again), we are currently engaged in the most profound cultural shift since Gutenberg gave us moveable type. Digital technology (the juju that powers the internet) is fundamentally altering the humanities—how we learn and communicate and tell our story—and that certainly includes music. As we’re now in the throes of the digital revolution, it is simply impossible to divine where this cultural metamorphosis will lead. But rest assured, in a decade’s time we’ll laugh at our crude conception of the digital possibilities back in 2013. As my friend David Diggs (musician/producer/arranger/A&R man and IT maven) quipped, “The Xerox machine was supposed to destroy the publishing industry. We all know that in reality it was the Kindle that did that.”

We needn’t fear the future; rather, we should embrace it and get involved in shaping it.

In the current climate, streaming services have supplanted radio as the primary means of showcasing new talent; they offer the kind of exposure that major label flacks could only dream about back in the day. It is now possible to tap social media to make a song go viral—or crowdsource a revolution to depose a tyrant. Pretty potent stuff. To his credit, Byrne allows that some aspiring artists and smaller indie labels view Spotify as a useful promotional tool, a way to get their music out to a broad—indeed, global—audience. That’s one helluva lot of PR for the money (i.e., free).

So remind me: How much revenue did artists accrue from radio play in the 1970s? How much did they receive in album royalties? For every Led Zeppelin, there were thousands of struggling unknown artists. Back in ’77, when Talking Heads released their first LP, very few bands could have survived on their royalties alone. And without supporting their releases with heavy touring schedules, there wouldn’t have been any royalties to worry about. Making a living playing music is a business. You need exposure to build a tribe.

So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star

When vinyl was king, the record industry revolved around a sophisticated system of payola and favors (you scratch my back…). Your record label bought ad packages in the trades to insure that you got positive reviews and positioning on the charts (“with a bullet”). Then they used those metrics (and more money and favors) to strong-arm radio programmers into giving your single heavy rotation on their playlist to coincide with their marketing campaign. All of this was linked to carefully mapped-out tour dates to guarantee exposure to the right markets at the right time—it was an intricately choreographed ballet. I was working in the business end of the industry at the time and saw this firsthand.

Mick Ralphs & Me

Mick Ralphs (Bad Company) & Aden Nichols (editor-in-chief, Performance magazine), Dallas, ca. 1976

But that was the 20th-century analog business model. Today, aspiring artists can harness technology to produce high-quality digital recordings (and supporting videos) relatively inexpensively and market them via the internet—much as indie authors are learning to do.

If Spotify proves to be an unsustainable model (and I suspect it will), it won’t survive. As novel business models emerge and mature, wise musicians will align themselves with professionals to handle their management, booking, promo, and sales—folks who know how to navigate the new digital landscape. But again, we really can’t predict what the music industry will look like in a decade; we only know that it will be something we wouldn’t recognize today.

No matter what the biz evolves into, one thing is certain—there will always be a market for good music crafted by talented artists. But here’s the catch: If you’re doing your art to get rich or become famous, you will most likely fail. If, on the other hand, you’re doing it because you can’t help yourself, because you can’t even imagine not doing it, what does it matter?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (nonfiction, academic, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.


David Byrne Predicts the End of the World — 7 Comments

  1. Aden, this is a really interesting look at the music industry past and current. I’m pretty uninformed but did enjoy introducing my son to some of my old favorites through Napster. Remember Pappa John Creech? And then hearing my son’s favorites. So what I want to know is how much did Spotify make by attracting the over 100 million downloaders of Get Lucky (a song almost as frighteningly bad as the Disney song “It’s a Small World After All”)? Have they figured out how to monetize the activity on their site? I’m sure they will and will probably sell the site and make billions after having taken advantage of the “artists”. Although it’s hard for me to use that term when referring to Get Lucky.

    • Pattie, of course I remember Papa John Creach! He was the darling of the San Francisco music scene in the early ’70s (and a member of Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Hot Tuna).

      I don’t have any figures regarding Spotify’s haul on “Get Lucky,” but to address your broader query: yes, Spotify thinks it has a winning formula for monetizing streaming digital music — a “freemium” model (free w/ads or upgrade to ad-free premium by subscription). There’s a slideshow white paper that explains it in detail here.

      Keep in mind the content providers (record labels) negotiate the licensing fees, so if Spotify is successful in building a massive base of paid subscribers, the labels can squeeze them by raising their fees. Personally, I think it’s an unsustainable business model, and worse still, it kneecaps artists even more than the old analog model did.

      But there’s a larger issue at play here: the elimination of gatekeepers in creative endeavors (art, music, literature). In pre-internet days, when access to the airwaves and commercial distribution channels was carefully controlled, a handful of people determined popular taste by limiting choices and employing skillful marketing techniques. Consumers were a captive audience. Conventional businesspeople thrive on control; they crave the comfort of a direct transaction and profits that can be quantified on an Excel spreadsheet — X units of product yields Y profit — and that’s why the internet scares them to death. Trying to control the Web is like trying to contain a fistful of quicksilver — the harder you grasp, the less you have.

      In the digital world, anyone can produce content and make it available to the entire planet for a very modest investment. The way you monetize it is to build a tribe of devoted followers via social media, and that means earning their trust. Seth Godin calls this “permission marketing.” You have to connect with your audience and offer something of value in exchange for their attention. The payoff is indirect, and since trust and loyalty are intangibles, this approach drives conventional business types crazy.

      The process of creating digital art and consuming it is a dynamic, reciprocal activity. Rather than a one-way megaphone (à la “Mad Men”), the creator-consumer relationship is now a dialog, a conversation. Successful marketing in an open-access digital marketplace requires a whole new mindset — and that’s fodder for another blog post.

      The publishing industry is undergoing a very similar, and equally disruptive, transition. Freedom from the shackles of the gatekeepers is very liberating for writers, as the literary marketplace is no longer held hostage by a few monolithic publishing houses. Small indie publishers are cropping up like toadstools and authors can also opt to self-publish. This doesn’t mean that aspiring authors don’t need the professional assistance of editors, designers, et al, but as is true of musicians, the relationship to these former gatekeepers (who are now mostly working freelance) is evolving into one of mutual support and respect rather than dictatorial control.

      The internet opens new avenues for artists to seek validation and build their tribe. Granted, this will initially result in a rash of “art” that isn’t ready for prime time, but the market is self-correcting. Consumers will separate the wheat from the chaff, and artists and consumers alike will be the beneficiaries!

      (Sorry for the longwinded response)

      • Higher Ed is going through the same transition with the advent of MOOC’s. It’s the democratization of education. Does it threaten the viability of Colleges and Universities or strengthen and broaden their brand? Does making music, culture, and knowledge free and easily accessible to all in some way dilute and imperil the quality of the source? Musicians and educators need to eat, right?

        • Therein lies the rub.

          The democratization of knowledge and culture is a real game changer — but is this embarrassment of digital riches really free? Someone or something has to subsidize the content creators who make this all possible. Further, these online wonders have to be linked to corollary activities in the corporeal space we actually inhabit. We are people, not avatars.

          Our social and cultural values are currently way out of balance: university football coaches make millions while professors (many of whom now serve as part-time non-tenure track adjuncts) hover just above the poverty line. What’s wrong with this picture?

          The increasing dominance of open-access digital channels only exacerbates the problem; we are creating and reinforcing an expectation that the arts and education should be free to all — a utopian vision that conveniently ignores the fact that musicians and educators do indeed need to eat.

          As we continue to revise our social norms to accommodate the new digital paradigm, we will be forced to make hard decisions about how and to what we ascribe value, and how (or if) we ensure the sustainability of esoteric endeavors like the arts and education. We — meaning those of us who make our living in those fields — must make a better case for the intrinsic value of our products and services to the survival and enrichment of humanity. We can’t afford to blink…

  2. Thanks for sharing Aden…and your young mug with Mick Ralphs is really cool!
    I recently watched on Netflix (streaming…maybe a subject for you next blog?) Levon Helm – Ain’t in It for My Health. Another music biz unfairness example…Robbie (Despicable) Robertson made all the money on the song writing royalties and the rest of them made little with only performance royalties.
    When “The Band” was near the end Robbie said to Levon he was concerned about the health of the band and how much longer they could ride it. Levon said …I’m a musician, I ain’t in for my health. I’m it for the full ride, wherever the music takes me. I miss Levon. Home
    Anyway…all this technology does make it different for all involved in the music world and elsewhere. But, I agree…it’s not the end of anything. We got Republicans to tell us when it’s the end!

  3. Hey Aden – First of all, loved, loved, LOVED the long-haired-hippie Aden. Who knew? Yu and I share more of a history than you realize. The year that the referenced-photo was taken of you, I was laboring away a part-time disc jockey (K-C-B-QUE! Saaan DEE-A-go!!) and went on to spend some 20+ years in the radio industry. Soon after KCBQ, I moved into sales, then management, with stops in Charlotte, ATlanta, Tampa and back to Atlanta. I was either a visionary or missed the road signs, but I exited radio for the agency biz in ’91 and went “all digital, all the time” in ’02.

    BTW – also loved the anecdote about Levon Helm (above) – always a BIG fan of Levon. Robbie? Not so much…

    Ironically, I had a long conversation yesterday with a prospective new client – TuneIn – an online streaming service that streams radio stations. Thousand’s of ’em, for all over the world. What Spotify, Pandora, iTunes Radio, and to a lesser extent, TuneIn and IHeartRadio do is put the content control in the hands of the consumer.

    As Kindle killed the publishing business, tight playlists, incessant commercials, voice tracking, lack of compelling personalities sent commercial radio, as we knew, to hospice.

    But there’s a bigger effect at work here: the “In-Control Consumer.” The web and broad band have created that. I can watch those TV shows that interest me, when I want and where I want – says the guy who has just binge-viewd all 5 seasons of “Breaking Bad.” The web has created a world where I can shop and buy anything anywhere while sitting in my underwear at 11pm. I can read any book or article on my smart phone or tablet. And, yes, I can stream the music I want to hear when I want to.

    You are correct – artists never made money from air play! And the record companies screwed them out of the unit sales money. So gigging is what allowed them to bring home the bacon – or, luckily, if they write their own material – publishing fees.

    But David Byrne misses a point – and I’m disappointed that he didn’t espouse this: “streaming” has opened up the world of “professional musician” to hundreds and hundreds of artists who would never have gotten a “record deal.” It starts with Justin Bieber ( I don’t claim that it’s a perfect world), and includes HUGE artists like Adele (no pun intended), Colbie Caillat, Soulja Boy, and Arctic Monkeys, among many. (Use of Oxford Comma noted.)

    The world doesn’t stand still – and neither does the music bidness.

Your thoughts?