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, then what does it matter?

the DW-P

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