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Thom Yorke vs. Spotify: Rebel Without a Plan 

More subscribers, more problems. As Spotify continues to grow, in both users and catalog, so do its detractors. Thom Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich recently took a stand against the streaming music service, citing that it’s “horrible for new artists.” 

We’ve seen this before.  The Black Keys recently refused to put their newest album “El Camino” on Spotify citing its detraction from album sales.  

There’s a common thread here.  Only established bands who have already made their money are the ones taking the stand against streaming music.  New and upcoming bands are more willing to cast a big net to get ears to their music. It’s been proven time and time again that artists make more money off touring than album sales, so why not do everything you can to maximize your exposure to potential new ticket buyers?  

Some labels believe in the value of Spotify’s exposure potential.  Stu Pflaum, co founder of the indie label Element 9, said in the famous Lefsetz Letter that after a Talib Kweli release went live on Spotify, web traffic tripled in terms of traffic and discussion.  Plus, piracy plummeted.  

“We’re getting real-time feedback from listeners on which tracks they favor and are able to adjust our marketing accordingly with most of our budget still intact,” Pflaum noted.

Why would a band or indie label trying to get exposure turn down a giant megaphone?  They need it, much more than Thom Yorke and Patrick Carney do.

The grand irony here of course is that Thom Yorke and Radiohead once GAVE AWAY AN ALBUM FOR FREE (essentially).  What message does that send to consumers on the perceived value of recorded music?  

“Recorded music simply isn’t worth as much as it once was due to a massive increase in supply,” Duncan Geere points out over at Tech Radar.  “That increase has come from the way the web has broken down geographical and social boundaries. Spotify takes advantage of that, but it didn’t cause it.”

You don’t need to be told that the model has changed.. This year, global music sales rose for the first time since 1999.  It’s no coincidence that streaming services showed 44% growth in that time.

Yorke and Godrich took a stand for “the future of music” and suggested that a “new model needs to be created.”  Fair, to a point. What they aren’t doing though is OFFERING any ideas on a new model.  If their stand is indeed for the future of music, then they need to have a suggestion for the artists who represent that future.  The new artists are the ones out there grinding.  If you want to help them, then show them an alternative route.  Pulling your catalog from Spotify only accomplishes taking your music from one service. By doing that, Yorke and Godrich are only giving new artists the option of going the traditional route, aka the model that didn’t show growth for over a decade.  

Ultimately you can’t fault Yorke and Godrich’s communal flag raising for their craft and fellow musicians.  It’s much less self serving than the Black Keys’ reasoning.  However, until an artist takes a stand with an actual alternative model in mind, it’s nothing more than myopic grandstanding. It’s an ethos of “this model wasn’t how I got big, therefore it can’t work for anyone else.”  This narrow focus helps no artist, large or small. 


Josh Kruk is a social media manager with a background in journalism and music writing.  He appreciates a well crafted Dio or NHL 94 reference.  You can follow him on Twitter at @j_kruk

Reader Comments (16)

Is someone here who has an idea for an alternative way?

July 22 | Unregistered CommenterWieland

Well no and that was my major issue too. Yorke, The Black Keys and others have said Spotify doesn't pay enough but make no counter offer. If you're going to attempt to be the example and the counter argument, then offer an actual plan. Meanwhile you have other artists like Rob Flynn of Machinehead and David Draiman of Disturbed totally on board with the model. There was an article recently about how Piracy has plummeted since streaming caught on. So the more this goes on it makes Yorke look a little out of touch, honestly.

July 22 | Registered CommenterJosh Kruk

Two things:
1) Godrich & Yorke complain about Spotify's impact on "new music", but that could mean different things: new ARTISTS, or new RELEASES. While I agree that new artists should not forsake streaming services, I do believe that putting a whole brand-new album up on Spotify the day it's released does hurt sales. Fans who would have otherwise bought it (yes, people DO still buy music!!!) will stream it instead, and you're leaving their money on the table. But of course, it's crucial for your new music to have SOME presence on Spotify, because that's where the masses are, and if they can't find you, they won't go searching elsewhere. This leads me to...
2) What's up with the assumption that "being on Spotify" means putting your WHOLE album up as soon as it's released? Why not put 2 or 3 tracks up, and make the rest purchase-only for the first few weeks after release? Casual listeners who only wanna hear the single will stream it -- but they weren't gonna buy the album anyway. Folks who discover you will stream this handful of tracks and, hopefully, be interested enough to seek out the rest of your album on iTunes or Amazon, thus maximizing the dollar-value of their demand. And true fans, who are most likely to purchase, won't have a cheaper outlet that cannibalizes their sale. New albums have the greatest value in the marketplace in the weeks right after they're released. Artists should capitalize on that as best they can.

July 22 | Unregistered CommenterJason Spitz

Good points Jason. Some bands are doing what you suggested, delaying their albums release to streaming services. Let it sell for a few sales cycles, then allow streaming. Taylor Swift did it with Red and Vampire Weekend did it with their newest record. I also noticed Metal Blade records will put maybe 1 album from their artists on Spotify, and an older one at that. That seems to the be the closest to middle ground on the issue. Like you said, have a presence but still give an incentive to buy.

July 22 | Registered CommenterJosh Kruk

Streaming isn't a "one size fits all" thing. Some bands will do better with streaming than others. Their fans will embrace it and the peripheral results, like more ticket & merch sales, will make up for the lack of income from streaming. Still, for other artists that won't happen. Streaming will decrease their bottom line and be a negative experience, especially for those artists that don't tour much.

But everyone is missing the point here, the one that Yorke and others are trying to make: millions of dollars are being, and will be made, by Spotify and similar services. The problem is that out of those multi-millions, the artists get a mere token sum, while other people rake in the cash. All the artists want is a fair piece of the money, because without them, there would be no streaming in the first place.

Now as for Yorke being a hypocrite because Radiohead gave away an album for free once, well, that was once, and it was THEIR CHOICE. Spotify is no one's "choice." They do not ask artists if they can use their music. Your music is on Spotify by default and then they send you a $16 check for a million plays. If you don't want your music on there, you have to tell them to take it off.

There's no question that streaming is the future of music, but the model needs to be more fair for the musicians who provide the "product" that is being consumed. The problem with artists like Yorke apparently not making a "counter offer" to Spotify to get a better rate, is that Spotify will not negotiate with individual musicians or bands. They set their rate with the record companies, who apparently have a financial stake in Spotify. The term "conflict of interest" seems appropriate here. And the record companies in the first place are as big, or bigger pirates than Spotify. So the end result of the current deal negotiated between Spotify and the record labels is that they both get the majority of money, while the artists again, get a mere token fee for their music.

But streaming doesn't hurt just musicians, it hurts some of the smaller independent labels as well. Small jazz & classical labels are also swept up into the Spotify machine without being able to negotiate their own deal. These labels & their artists both depend upon recording SALES to make a living. A $16 check doesn't even start to recoup recording costs…

July 22 | Unregistered CommenterIctus75

We're waiting for artists to create an alternate business model? You give them the ability to dictate the market and they'll end up doing something crazy like allowing consumers to name their own price for an album.

The reality is that artists & labels no longer have the ability to propose new models because they can't control the channels for consumption. What my label recognized, as Josh pointed out, is that the fans are in control and we needed to stop pretending we could force feed singles down their throats and allowed them to collectively point us in the right direction, while monetizing our streams.

Thom & Nigel can argue all they want, but at the end of the day all they're going to get from this campaign is a loss of revenue and less exposure for their project.

July 22 | Unregistered CommenterStu Pflaum

Okay Spotify fanboy, who made the rule that you can't voice your displeasure about a service without offering a fully-fleshed alternative? You seem to be very irritated that Thom Yorke had an opinion about something without really focusing on what he was saying.

By the way, I'll tell you straight up I don't have an alternative for Spotify. I didn't have the time to devise a business model for multi-million dollar social media conglomerate so hopefully my own opinion won't be dismissed with prejudice.

Do you need to see the royalty figures that Spotify pays independant artists (if you haven't heard, well then ya go! Are you okay that? Does that seem fair to you?

If you think that that is fair, totally cool, I'd be happy to read your defense with an open mind. Unfortunately, during no point in your "blog" did you tackle that subject.

So, yes I'm voicing my displeasure on how you chose to write this blog. Oh, and here's MY alternative as to how you can make it better (which you seem so high on). It would have been better had you approached it by way of "Does Spotify give indie artists a fair deal?" rather than "Does the lead singer of Radiohead have a right to his opinion?"

July 22 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew G.

Andrew, at no point did I say or even infer that Thom Yorke didn't have a right to his opinion. This blog was merely me disagreeing, respectfully at that, with his opinion. I wrote this to speak from the consumer side since Thom was speaking from the music business side. There's plenty of articles about the fairness of the Spotify payouts already.

And allow me to explain why I suggested Yorke propose a new model: when I was discussing this in comment forums, on Twitter and with friends, I posed the question "why do rich bands always take this stand and not the up and coming ones?" The answer I kept getting, which made sense, is that Thom Yorke or an artist of his popularity needs to be the one to "take a stand" since more people will take notice. So then I think if Yorke wants to take a true stand, why not suggest an alternative? If you're going to be the example, then present a new plan. If you have the influence then use it to create real change. I don't think that's unfair to at least suggest namely because many people, myself included would be intrigued to hear what he would suggest.

Third, in regards to the payouts I think there's a lot to consider. I think it's telling that most artists are embracing streaming, and that artists like David Draiman and Rob Flynn have spoken vehemently in favor of it. I think the payments are fairer than Pandora's and I think the service offers enough benefits such as publicity, exposure, and showing respect for your listeners who choose to stream that it is worth it. This is only backed up by the continued growth of Spotify's catalog and growth. Notice that Stu Pflaum, who I mentioned in the article, also left a comment about artists not able to control the channels of consumption anymore. I think he makes a great point and his career is in the music industry, so I think it's an opinion that carries much weight.

I appreciate you reading and leaving a comment either way.

July 22 | Registered CommenterJosh Kruk

No Josh,

You did not respectfully disagree, you misrepresented (I believe purposely) his position. Thom never has never complained about the money HE is getting per play...he is saying the money WE (new, smaller artist) are getting per play is too low...and it is.

Your "common thread" comment is laughable. Everyone I know who gets a $2.34 check from Spotify complains about it! Only established bands my ass...

Spotify is another example of the artist being the VERY LAST in line to get any money. It's an old minded people telling artists what is good for their business. The more things change...

July 23 | Unregistered CommenterVinylUsa

I don't see why Radiohead giving away In Rainbows on a 'pay what you like' model negates Yorke's argument. In Rainbows was an example of a band releasing their music, their way, with them being in complete control of it. The argument Yorke, Godrich, and many artists have is that it only works for established artists who have already built a fan base and made their money. I think streaming can be a great thing. I think it *can* make an artist available to a whole new fan base that may not have been aware of them otherwise BUT I do think much needs to happen to make far more fair in terms of payment.
What I don't understand is why people think the In Rainbows example is, in any way, relevant to the discussion. I've yet to find a single person who has been able to make a valid argument. Other than " could get it for free! *stomps feet and whines*

July 23 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

VinylUsa, doesn't the "everyone I know" argument seem narrow and anecdotal? Plenty of artists support the model. And I don't think it's misrepresenting Yorkes words considering he did indeed pull some music off there.

Christine, I think the In Rainbows situation applies in a few ways. For one it further illustrates how Yorke is not the average musician and how he is not necessarily the best model to follow in terms of distribution. Radiohead could afford to do the "pay what you want" model, most bands cannot. Second, what did that model say about the value of recorded music? It basically proved that you don't NEED to pay $10 for an album. So Yorke took an unconventional approach that may have actually helped influence the change in models of music distribution. And now that it has changed, he's rejecting. It's a tad ironic and at least indirectly related I'd say.

July 23 | Registered CommenterJosh Kruk

I agree with Thom Yorke. Services like Spotify are killing new and indie artists. For instance, I get great rates in a quality studio with a quality producer ...I pay $200.00 a day. Even recording one or two songs at a time and completing them is going to cost me best several hundred dollars... After I go and pay for promotion etc, it just isn't viable if the return is micro-fractions of a penny. This thing about touring and playing little clubs etc for the main revenue stream is also bogus. Forcing more and more bands to do that drives down what can be made since there are only 365 days in a year and a finite number of venues available to any given genre.
Criticizing Thom Yorke's perspective because Radiohead released free music on the internet is unproductive.
The reality is that the avenues of distribution that most indie musicians have available are services like reverbnation and cdbaby etc, and the artists don't have that much control over who their music gets distributed to through these services. They pay a fee for a package and that's where the music goes. This allows for a wide variety of carpetbaggers to move in. Since artists don't have much control over which streaming services get to play their music and who doesn't there is no real competition between the streaming services to compensate the artist and they can all opt to pay very little for the content that makes their services viable in the first place.
Though I still use sites like reverbnation, I'm being forced to the conclusion that they have become more about "mining the miners and farming the farmers" than providing services of real benefit. They are slowly deteriorating into being little more than a "vanity press." Their submission platform allows for festivals, promoters and blogs etc to solicit for music and artists and also charge a submission fee ...without any obligation that the musicians paying the fee will be selected. The tendency to corruption in this should be self evident. Mr. Yorke is correct in his observations.

July 27 | Unregistered CommenterAlamantra

1) music fans do not care about this debate.

2) music fans will use whatever service they like. Artists will not control fan behavior by keeping their music off services their fans use.

3) Artists that succeed will do what is necessary to monetize their art and everything around it. Everything they produce is a potential commodity. Artists who only know how to record music and sell it via 1994-era methods will struggle.

July 30 | Unregistered Commenterscottandrew

Thom Yorke speaks for us musicians who can't. If we stand up against these greedy corporate criminals, it makes us look bad and will hurt our career. Will people buy music from someone who is complaining that they can't make sales? They don't have to worry about hurting their career.
What about Jango for example? They have you pay, then they play your songs but will not pay to Soundexchange or any of the PROs. And they get away with breaking copyright law. If you want your songs removed, you are unable to do it.

How is it possible to pay someone .0001 cent for their product? Only if you are a musican.

It's not only Spotify, it's every single one of them.

July 31 | Unregistered CommenterGretch

Scott is right. There are other ways to monetize your work. Spotify is a fantastic discovery service for music fans, like it or not. Use Spotify as a promotional tool, to get wider exposure. Not money.

Did you see the mobile app that Bastian Baker released mid-July? He released an app to offer his fans a way to enter his universe. Get exclusivity. A new experience. And fans pay him a yearly subscription for that. And data about his fans are his own (do you know who you're fans are on Spotify, do you?).

What if (part of) the future of music distribution lies in the mobile app? What do you think?

Spotify is not the bad guys here I think, they are losing money every day. Artists stuck with record company deals have a middleman taking the big part of the payouts. Start your own record label if you want more money, easy. Of course there are other tradeoffs but don't blame spotify for signing bad contracts. I saw someone complaining about spending several hundreds of dollars on a recording and not getting back the money - that tells me that you are probably not signed to a major label which gives you the control over the music. Just don't put it up there if you don't like the service. (No I have no affiliation)

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

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