So Thom Yorke pulls some of his music off Spotify. The Weeknd sample Portishead’s Machine Gun even though Portishead refused consent. The whole ‘what is the value of music’ debate opens up again and quite a few musicians start moaning that it’s not fair that they are having to work for nothing / very little and that good old Thom is right and Spotify isn’t helping new music.
Now let's be clear here, we appreciate it's hard for the majority of artists – the internet has created an overcrowded market place. It’s the simple and basic fact why the vast majority of musicians will earn very little from their music. Anyone who thinks that every new band should be able to buy a new house and a Ferrari off the sale of just a few songs is living in cloud cuckoo land.
Recording artists are competing in a very large race and there will be very few winners. And just like sport the chances are the winners will be those who work the hardest, have the most ability and by thinking outside of the box put themselves in a position to get those 'lucky' breaks.
Let's talk about this hard work - the work of creating music. It's a selfishly weird type of work, because generally it involves the artist (worker) setting their own agenda in terms of the work (what they create). It’s not the kind of job that the regular guy or girl in the street has where a price / salary are agreed for a defined type of work with a customer or employer before the job starts. The vast majority of independent pop / rock musicians aren’t commissioned to make their music (although the likes of Pledge Music and Kickstarter now enable that model to exist.) Musicians write record and then put it out to the open market. As such music has no value, unless the open market decides it is worth something and consumers decide to purchase. Yes of course it costs money to record, promote and manufacture but this doesn’t automatically by rights add to the customer's perception of value.
Thom Yorke's decision to remove some of his work from Spotify is hardly a revelation. He's just decided that the rewards from streaming through Spotify aren't adequate against the values he perceives it has as its creator. Of course at the current time Spotify is a relatively small player, with the Guardian reporting that it is operational in 28 Countries with six million paying subscribers – a tiny amount compared with the likes of Amazon, iTunes and You Tube. However, if Spotify gets it right and develops as a business model it may be able to reward the artists it streams with increased income. Of course if artists decide that they are going to follow Yorke’s example, Spotify will quickly plunge to failure.
So back to Mr Yorke and his claims that Spotify isn’t helping new music. Come on Thom what do you really expect? There are thousands of new artists out there. The chances of them all getting millions or even thousands of plays on Spotify (or actual sales of MP3’s or physical format) are very low. This brings us to the key point. What is one play on Spotify actually worth?
Let’s compare. Take for example one play on national radio. One play on Spotify = 1 pair of ears. One play on national radio = maybe 2 million pairs of ears. So as one play on a national radio station such as Radio 2 gets around £60 from PRS payments that equates to approximately 0.00003 pence per listener. Hardly huge value considering how many people listened to the song and contributed to payment through the licence fee. Yet we don’t see Thom asking for his records not to be played on national radio do we?
So what is the (monetary) value of music? Is Spotify paying too little? Are records and CD’s too expensive or too cheap? Or is the reality simply that there’s too much music out there and only a finite amount of resource for consumers to spend on it?