This article originally appeared in the 7.6.15 issue of Metroland.
I’ve criticized the always-fascinating David Byrne in the
past for some of his public proclamations about the music business.
In 2006-2007 he was wondering aloud whether
record companies were necessary in the digital age, which is a good thing to
He spoke intelligently
about various alternative business models, and was an early innovator in using
the internet to connect directly with his fans.
As with his music, he wasn’t afraid to try new and different
Some things work, some
That’s how art and business move
In 2012 he
complained about record companies sticking DRM (digital rights management,
digital goo that keep consumers from transferring files around their devices
and to their friends) on his music, claiming he shelved an album for over a
year until his record company agreed to release it DRM-free (These days most
every digital file you buy is DRM-free; the record companies after a decade of
clownish and despicable behavior, have quietly given up, for now).
2013, he got weird, not in that charming David Byrne weird way, but in a
post-modern “got offa my lawn” weird way.
He pulled much of his catalog off of Spotify, which at the time had been
available in the US for barely a year.
In a bizarre op-ed in The Guardian
he announced that “the internet will suck all the creative content out of the
the New York Times
ran another Byrne
op-ed, and I thought uh-oh.
Turns out he
nails it, it’s worth reading, and it focuses on the Big Problem in the music
And that’s the total lack of
transparency in how money gets to artists with streaming services.
In order for Spotify, the new Apple Music
(which appears to be failing), Jay-Z’s Tidal (which is failing) and the rest of
the streaming services to get major label catalogs, they’ve had to shell out
hefty advances and give away large chucks of their companies, or at least large
chucks of their profits, to the major labels.
How big, how much?
We don’t know,
because the agreements are confidential.
his credit, doesn’t blame the streaming services for this, like so many other
artists have done.
He actually says nice
things about Spotify.
Instead, he blames
the labels, who have a history of being greedy and corrupt, and who haven’t
changed their stripes in the digital age.
The services needed to leverage their companies and profits to get the
major label’s back catalogs, otherwise it would be game over.
But did these huge advances get shared with
artists, and if they did, how? Spotify famously claims that 70% of its revenue
goes to rights holders as royalties, but in most cases the rights holders are
How much of that gets
to the artists?
lawsuits that have found that some artists should get 50% of the record
companies’ share, it appears many artists are getting the 15% or so they got
under traditional record contracts.
Which made sense when the record companies manufactured disks, printed
sleeves, stored them in warehouses, and trucked them to stores.
It makes absolutely no sense today, when all
the record company has to do is transmit a digital file to Spotify, Apple, etc.
and then sit back and wait for the checks to arrive.
about the money the companies get from their equity stakes in the streaming
How much of Spotify’s 30% goes
back to the record companies?
this, in a very real sense, double dipping?
For me, Byrne’s penultimate question was this: Why was it up to Taylor
Swift, and not the record companies, to demand that Apple pay royalties for the
three-month free streaming period?
was the labels’ stake allowing their artists’ music to be given away?
YouTube, which you might be interested to know is by far the biggest portal of streaming
music in the world.
How much of their ad
revenue goes to rights holders, and where does that money go?
We don’t know.
there is the significant inference that the major labels, with all their
bargaining power, are undoubtedly getting a better deal than independent labels
and individual artists trying to slog through the digital new world.
his efforts to find out, and this would be comical if it weren’t so sad.
Doors slammed in his face, calls
Turns out much of what we
know is from leaks, including the big Sony leak from last year.
royalty statements for my band.
years ago it was pretty clear what they meant—we sold x number of downloads and
got y dollars for it.
Now I get
statements showing pennies here and there from this service and that service,
some I’ve never heard of.
I just got a
check in the mail for 3 cents.
what the hell that’s about.
course the labels are to blame.
new boss… same as it ever was.
Paul Rapp is an
entertainment lawyer and musician who lives in the woods and needs a damn good
reason to come out.