I remember the days before the digital music revolution. It was 25 years ago that most of the musical releases in the world were not available to you unless you lived (or could get to) a big city with a good record store. If you lived in, say, North Carolina, some interesting record from a little band in Indiana was not necessarily available to you.
If you were lucky, you had a college radio station that might play interesting obscure selections.
It has always been hard for young bands to make money. In that time of localized distribution and no easy reach beyond your own bubble, the option was extensive touring, but that cost money.
It was a hard world for young bands.
A sign of progress is that now we have digital distribution systems for music that makes Indiana bands easily accessible to North Carolina fans. They can just click through the music on their computers like gluttons, listening to five seconds here and 10 seconds there until they find exactly what they want to hear. The little bands got their greatest wish -- access -- but it turns out that in the music business, access ushers in competitiveness on a level never experienced that results in unfair favoritism.
Thom Yorke is a very big rock star from the band Radiohead and is complaining that "new bands" don't make enough money on the music service Spotify, so he's pulling his vanity project from Spotify distribution. In this way, as with Radiohead's earlier embrace of the pay-what-you-want album download, Yorke has the convenience of appearing to fight for the little guy while having a safety net of about a million times larger. It's a no-lose situation for him.
The center of his complaint is that smaller artists don't have the same percentage deal as larger artists -- that is, established artists. Technically, his new band falls under the designation of smaller even though Yorke is in it, so he's feeling the same pain that the ants usually feel. Generally, it fails to penetrate his giant's thick skin.
There are several problems here. One is that it ignores that the big labels in America commandeered Spotify earlier on, demanding all sorts of slices of the pie before ironing out deals. They grafted part of their dinosaur-like business model onto the streaming music service one, which meant that the big draws got a better deal than the tiny acts.
You'll find this is the case throughout entertainment history -- the small fish ride on the fins of the big ones, the cash cows cover for the monetary clunk of everyone else, and compensation is often calculated with that understanding.
Spotify has only six million paying customers, actually, so it is at a very low rung of music industry money-makers. There are much bigger fish in this pond, siphoning up much more money.
Back in the day I spoke of earlier, though, no act would have gotten paid for radio play. They would make no money at all even though millions of people listened to the music for free. Some of us kids recorded songs on our tape players for free!
They waited for the trickle down effect -- actual music product, including ticket sales, as well as merchandise bringing income.
Spotify is like a step up from that -- from no payment to some payment. It acts more like a service to replace the radio, not your turntable or disc player. People can supplement a listen by purchasing the actual product, or some merchandise, or buying a ticket. This is no different from the model 30 years ago, it's just some players are new, some have shifted.
It's not an argument whether the big entertainment system is fair or not fair -- it is what it always has been. They invest more in the bigger acts and get more of a return, and the bigger acts demand incentives for being that.
In an equitable situation with streaming books, I would not get the same percentage as J.K. Rowling, and you would all laugh at me if I suggested that I should. And you would be right.
John Seven is the Transcript's arts and entertainment editor. He blogs at blogs.thetranscript.com/arts.