Wednesday, 30 October 2013

David Byrne: A Consumer’s Retort

On 11th October, David Byrne penned a comment piece for The Guardian in which he argued that online music streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora are in danger of “sucking all creative content out of the world”.

The former Talking Heads singer made some interesting points in the article, mainly that the increasing trend of music consumption via these platforms has led to a severe downturn in profit for the artists creating it due to the miniscule amounts per stream paid out by the music services. As Byrne sees it, if the financial rewards for making music and art in general continue to diminish at the current rate, it won’t be long before creativity itself is all but redundant.

It’s difficult not to feel at least a little bit of sympathy for the plight of the modern artist from Byrne’s prophecy of doom, but he rather unwittingly stops making sense of it all in the third paragraph when he says: “For many music listeners, the choice is obvious – why would you ever buy a CD or pay for a download when you can stream your favourite albums and artists either for free, or for a nominal monthly charge?”

Because therein lies the problem. The music industry is one which relies on its consumer base like any other and if those consumers are able to get their goods cheaper, or even for free, from an alternative source, then how can you really blame them for doing so?

As someone who has been an ardent subscriber to Spotify Premium for several years, I am certainly the sort of person Byrne’s article seems intent on guilt-tripping into reverting to the old fashioned methods of music consumption for the greater good. Before Spotify came along I found music fandom an expensive hobby and regularly spent more than I could afford on the pursuit of new and interesting sounds. When I found a product which offered to not only vastly expand my music collection, but also make it completely portable for a meagre £9.99 a month, it was something of a no-brainer.

Byrne rather ludicrously suggests that streaming services are just legalised versions of file-sharing sites like Napster and Pirate Bay, which is akin to comparing buying alcohol from an off-licence because it’s cheaper than the pub to shoplifting.

But if I agree with Byrne on one thing, it’s that there are too many people out there who have no qualms about shoplifting, at least in the figurative sense. Users of file-sharing sites typically argue that they wouldn’t download music illegally if it wasn’t so expensive to purchase via the official channels but you could be forgiven for being sceptical about the sincerity of such a claim. What people on both sides of the debate must understand is that there’s a gulf of middle ground between expecting something for nothing and feeling as though you’re the one being fleeced.

Perhaps the most profound question posed by Byrne’s article relates more to whether a monetary value should be placed on true art in the first place. The tragic case study presented in support of Byrne’s argument is that of Daft Punk, whose feel-good-hit-of-the-summer, ‘Get Lucky’, has been streamed over 100 million times on Spotify alone. Despite this, the French electro duo is expected to pocket a mere $13,000 each, whereas under the old system record sales of that magnitude would’ve easily netted them a figure in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

When you put it like that it’s easy to make it sound like the artists are getting an extremely raw deal, but $26,000 is still a more than adequate reward for what was a fairly insignificant piece of work in the grand scheme of things, and is undoubtedly not Daft Punk’s only source of income this year.

An extremely cynical onlooker might go as far as to suggest that an artist more concerned about making money than making art is no artist at all, and I’d be inclined to agree. What Byrne perceives to be the beginning of the end of creation could actually be the next golden age of artistic freedom in disguise if more people are forced into creating art for the love of simply doing so rather than as a way of quitting their day jobs.

It could even be suggested that historically there’s nothing abnormal about artists being scantily compensated for their work, and the model of the last 40 or 50 years in which the likes of David Byrne have lived comfortable and prosperous lives as a result of their art has actually been a spike on the graph. Byrne presents his argument in a way which suggests he’s more concerned for the future generation of artists than himself, which is fair enough, but as someone rightly pointed out in the comments below the article, the future generation will know no different than a world in which a song played 100 million times will make $26,000. Whether you’d class that as misfortune or not really seems to depend on whether you’re more interested in making art or making money.

It is to be hoped that some sort of equilibrium can be struck between artists feeling like they aren’t being paid enough for what they do, and consumers feeling like they’re being made to pay too much for it. The suggestion that creativity will die without financial gain is an inconceivable notion, however, because there will always be people dedicated to producing art regardless of whether or not they can afford to buy a beautiful house or a beautiful car when they’re done. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

Words: Dan Burke.
Image 1: Fred von Lohmann.
Image 2: Sorosh.
Image 3: deejayres.
Image 4: Johan Larsson.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, that Daft Punk statistic was made up. They actually would have grossed about 1million off that song and would have ended up EACH with at least 100k. Possibly more depending on how much their label took. What makes things worse is when people like David Byrne come out and make up statistics (that are easily refutable with simple math) in place of a real argument. I agree that artists don't need to make huge amounts of money. Hell, the idea of the starving artist has all but disappeared, and it was these starving artists who created the best of what's out there. I do believe there needs to be a rewriting of contracts to account for the changes in the industry, with perhaps a bigger percentage going to artists. That way whenever something is streamed through spotify, or torch music, or pandora, the artists will get a better cut of it.