Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Earlier this week David Byrne added his entry to the “artist foresees imminent end of music” category. In the last couple years these articles have focused on how streaming services are supposedly destroying the ability of artists to support themselves with their music. They are usually written by at least semi-famous musicians and include at least one ostentatious claim to speak on behalf of struggling, lesser known artists.

Byrne’s piece is a little better than most, though it includes a few items like the Cavuto Mark-modified claim that streaming services are “simply a legalised version of file-sharing sites such as Napster and Pirate Bay,” along with obligatory chivalry (“up-and-coming artists don’t have that advantage” etc). It certainly comes across better than misleading jeremiads like David Lowery’s, anyway.

He comes at the subject from an egocentric point of view, though. (Maybe that’s an occupational hazard from spending lots of time in a spotlight.) Byrne gives the strong impression that he expects people to experience music only in David Byrne-approved ways. For instance:

I can understand how having a place where people can listen to your work when they are told or read about it is helpful, but surely a lot of places already do that? I manage to check stuff out without using these services.

Sure there are other ways to listen to music. But maybe not everyone prefers, say, going to the Bandcamp page the way Byrne does. Maybe they’ve decided that, for whatever reason, they like streaming services better.

Similarly, he expects people to hear music the same way he does:

the actual moment of discovery in most cases happens at the moment when someone else tells you about an artist or you read about them – not when you’re on the streaming service listening to what you have read about

Actually, no! Or rather, not always. I listen to all kinds of new music every week – at least twenty artists I’ve never heard before, typically more – and my moment of discovery for a song is usually somewhere between the third and fifth listen. At some point there I think, hey this is pretty good! And while I do that with downloaded MP3 files (through sites like this, this and this for example), that process has been used for decades to promote music discovery via radio.

Critics of streaming commonly compare it to music sales, not music listening. Byrne: “why would you ever buy a CD or pay for a download when you can stream your favourite albums and artists either for free, or for a nominal monthly charge?” He quotes Patrick Carney of the Black Keys saying streaming royalties are “not at a point yet to be feasible for us.” Zoë Keating: “millions and millions of streams needed to makeup for sales are not ever going to be a reality for non-mainstream music.” The New York Times: “For those whose income depends on royalties, the biggest concern has been whether streaming cannibalizes CD and download sales by offering a cheap or free alternative.”

But as Tim Worstall notes, “Spotify isn’t the physical sale of something at all, is it? It’s the one time presentation of a piece of music: it’s much more akin to radio play than it is to album sales.” Streaming services ought to pay out at comparable rates to radio, and what do you know – it turns out they do. (Be sure to read Worstall’s hilarious take on Thom Yorke’s reverse ferret, too.) Has any artist ever made a living from radio royalties?

Now, it may well be that radio is screwing over artists – there’s plenty of evidence – but that’s a fight between artists and the labels. It’s hardly a new fight, and streaming services are peripheral to it. Or: fix the situation with the labels and the streaming services will follow.1

I can understand why artists like Byrne – those that enjoyed a certain amount of commercial success in the past but haven’t had any big hits in many years – would dislike streaming services. Like radio they cater to casual listeners, but unlike radio they play on demand. If you have a notion to hear a song from back in the day, you don’t need to call the local oldies station, request it and hope they play it. You just fire it up. You don’t need to buy the MP3 of the song you have a once-a-decade itch to hear. For those whose best hope of making money in the music industry is collecting off their back catalog, that’s damn near the apocalypse.

Here’s the thing though. If you shut down the streaming services, how many people are going to be so mad to hear Burning Down the House or Low one more time that they buy it? They’ll just live without hearing it or call the oldies station. It’s not the staff of life, for God’s sake.

Streaming services promote discovery. To his credit, Byrne wrestles with that in his article. But while he comes right up to the key point (turning interest into sales), he doesn’t seem to understand how that process works from a fan’s perspective.

I’ve always been a big music fan, but for about ten years (roughly 1997-2007) I didn’t listen to much at all. Between the increase in talk shows and tiny playlists I’d given up on radio, and contra Byrne I wasn’t interested in going off taste makers’ recommendations. Then I started checking out the (dearly departed) song of the day at Salon.com, burning David Marchese’s picks to a rewritable CD, and listening to them in the car. From there I began discovering other free MP3 sites, and before long I was listening to more music than I ever had in my life.

None of that would have been possible without the free part, though. Music discovery through actual listening only happens when the tunes are free or nominally priced. Twenty songs a week adds up to over a thousand dollars a year, and that’s a mighty expensive habit. Especially when most of it isn’t that good. And in any event, you don’t want to keep the stuff you don’t like – it just becomes clutter.

That’s why streaming makes so much sense for discovery. You don’t end up with a bunch of crap you’re not interested in. You only buy (and keep) the stuff you dig. And that is the answer to Byrne’s question of why you would buy a CD or pay for a download. I don’t pay for 95% of the music I listen to, maybe more. But through that process I’ve gotten turned on to lots of music that I do pay for. I’ve bought tickets to see Bleeding Rainbow, helped fund the Kickstarter for Holly Conlan’s new CD (I now have it before its official release next Tuesday) and ordered Novella’s new cassette/EP (check out Mary’s Gun!) – and that’s just in the last month.

None of that would have happened if I hadn’t been able to listen to lots and lots of music for free at first. That’s the same opportunity streaming services offer. It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the most important ways to make money on music is to give it away. It might not be the most lucrative option for those like David Byrne, Thom Yorke and David Lowery, but for those not so happily situated – those who haven’t already made a name for themselves – it may seem a little like their more famous peers are trying to pull up the ladder behind them. Kill discovery and you make it substantially more difficult for audiences to find new artists.



NOTES

1. If Byrne really is concerned about up and coming artists, maybe he could spare some breath for the collusion between big labels and radio stations:

David Macias, president of Nashville independent record label Thirty Tigers, worried that the trend of agreements between broadcast companies and record labels could have a chilling effect on independent music if the radio stations are more inclined to play songs produced by labels with which they have business deals.

And you know what? Streaming services and free MP3 sites could actually be substantial check against that kind of activity.
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