THE MUSIC ISSUE
The week of March 15, 2015

When will bands start opting out?

By Austin Powell

If major bands are willing to opt out of South by Southwest, the single biggest music industry event of the year, could they be willing to do the same for streaming services like Spotify?

The idea of skipping SXSW would’ve seemed absurd just a few years ago. (Depending on who you ask, it’s absurd even today. I’m en route to Austin right now.) For five chaotic days, the entire music industry—bands, journalists, labels, publishers, bookers—is shoehorned into one place. If you’re looking to make an impact—and to do so as efficiently as possible—there’s no better crapshoot than SXSW. That’s why iconic b(r)ands like Metallica and Bruce Springsteen & the E. Street Band routinely turn up to play venues they outgrew decades ago.

But this year, as Andy Langer noted in an excellent piece on Medium, prominent acts with new albums to promote—My Morning Jacket, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, and Alabama Shakes to name a few—are passing on the opportunity. The consensus takeaway is that the potential return simply isn’t worth the barrage of hashtags, lines, and hassle—even if there are breakfast tacos involved. It’s a natural (and frankly overdue) reaction, one I think that will be healthy for the conference in the long run and one that will help, at least in theory, shift the focus back to the bands still looking for their first break. (Cue Emmy Feldman’s excellent preview playlist, “100 bands you need to hear at SXSW 2015.”)

So what’s stopping those same bands from taking a similar stand against Spotify?

Some, obviously, already have. Many indie bands and labels (Drag City Records, for example) have chosen not to make their catalogs available, and Taylor Swift, in a much-publicized move, pulled her new album from Spotify last year for reasons that are very well-documented but worth repeating. Here’s how Jack Conte, one half of the YouTube powerhouse Pomplamoose, put it:

“As a consumer, I think Spotify is the greatest the thing ever. I have every song ever recorded in my pocket—except for Taylor Swift. And that’s awesome. I love that. I use Spotify every day of my life. As an artist, I hate it and I hope it goes away forever. I make no money from Spotify. They give me no way of connecting with my fans or the people listening. Unlike SoundCloud, it’s not a community where I can reach listeners. I don’t have any visibility into analytics or growth or demographics or traffic. I get nothing. So, I absolutely love it as a consumer; but as an artist, I’m pretty bummed about it.”

What’s stopping those same bands from taking a similar stand against Spotify?

In other words, instead of bridging the divide between artists and fans, Spotify has inadvertently drawn a line between two, pushing each other to extremes.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we only talk about the value of music monetarily,” Josh Tillman, the shaman behind Father John Misty, told me for this issue. “It’s made everything a cliché: The artists have turned into these cranky, luddite, money-grubbing elitists, and the consumers are the dim-witted, mouth-breathing opportunists.”

No one is arguing that streaming isn’t valuable or necessary. In fact, as Dylan Love illustrates here, big data companies like Next Big Sound are sorting through massive data sets culled from everything from SoundCloud spins to Wikipedia page views to discover needles in the the pop-music haystack.

But there has to be a better streaming model out there than what Taylor Hatmaker found when she surveyed the services currently available—and no, it isn’t SAP, the parody service Tillman launched to promote I Love You, Honeybear, an early frontrunner for album of the year.

“In a nutshell: Royalties should be paid based on subscriber share, not overall play share.”

“Streaming music companies aren’t profitable,” Hatmaker wrote. “Both musicians and record industry fat cats—normally at odds by definition—are united only in their anger at dwindling album sales and a foolish wistfulness for a broken, bygone era of album sales. Consumers are blissfully ignorant, mostly content to endure a few ads to listen to unlimited free music. Considering how many people are sharing the pie, the ad-supported ‘free’ streaming model remain a bonkers excuse for a business plan, no matter how you slice it.”

I believe that a better Spotify would look something like what contributor Sharky Laguana has put forth.

“In a nutshell: Royalties should be paid based on subscriber share, not overall play share,” Laguana suggests. “In this far more equitable system, the subscriber is paying to listen to certain artists, so those artists, and those artists alone, are the only ones splitting the royalties payable from that subscriber’s subscription fee. The economic model that drives Spotify is now connected to the economic model that drives artists: Get more listeners, not more plays. … In other words, let’s reward artists who actually bring in and sustain revenue, not artists who simply have listeners more likely to listen to the same tracks repeatedly.”

For that to ever happen though, it’s going to take bands of every stripe forcing the issue and opting out if necessary.

Until then, as with SXSW, there’s an infinite amount of new music out there waiting to be discovered. Dig in, and enjoy it while you still can.

Photo via Will Folsom/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)