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The streaming music model is broken, and David Byrne’s here to fix It

on April 07, 2014, 4:25pm

Recently, David Byrne has joined the likes of Thom Yorke and Pink Floyd in rallying against streaming music services like Spotify and Pandora. While he cried foul on “inadequate” pay structures, Byrne’s recent Guardian op-ed was primarily a warning for up-and-coming acts, as he argued that streaming put in jeopardy the “survival of emerging artists and those who have only a few records under their belts. (Those musicians) who will eventually have to find employment elsewhere or change what they do to make more money.” In case his argument didn’t paint a bleak enough picture, Byrne concluded, “The Internet will suck all creative content out of the world.”

Still, Byrne isn’t entirely a doomsayer. (How can you be while wearing this?) In a new open letter entitled “How Will the Wolf Survive: Can Musicians Make a Living in the Streaming Era”, Byrne attempts to reconcile the streaming model with the possibility of a financially sound future. While he maintains his sense of unease, Byrne approaches the tumultuous situation with trademark inquisitiveness:

“I’m curious as to what happens to musicians when these services become more ubiquitous—when streaming becomes the new download (just as the download took over physical CD sales) — which is what the owners, partners and investors in them intend.”

Though he assured readers he can’t “sort everything out,” Byrne’s four conceptual changes to the streaming model have a much more subtle approach: “When I zoom out and try and do the math, that’s when these thorny questions get raised. People accept things the way they are (and I include myself in that category), until they collectively realize they don’t have to be that way.”

Drumroll please:

1) “No free on-demand streaming”. As Byrne explains, there would be no “free ad-supported Spotify version” or even free music on YouTube. Instead, people have to “pay a monthly or small one-time fee — just like with Netflix”. He commended the Beats model and their purposeful lack of a “long-term free option”.

2) “Artists should get 50% of the income streaming sites now pay to labels”: According to Byrne, this is how most other creative licenses work, and he questioned why streaming seems to be the sole exclusion. The adjustment, he said, would “quadruple” artist pay, and though the “amount of income still might not be sustainable, it goes part of the way there.”

As part of an independent audit, Byrne mentioned that labels like Warner Bros. have already adopted a 50/50 share. Even still, he noted that the change isn’t as altruistic as it appears. “Maybe they saw a LOT of lawsuits heading their way and decided to, well, do the right thing,” he said. “Others suspect that because they are partners with Spotify they can do some creative accounting and still appear to be doing the right thing. Maybe the fact that they are partners in the streaming companies means they see the bulk of their income coming from co-ownership?”

3) Artist Approval: As with most other licenses, the “artist should have approval whether his or her work can be used,” Byrne explained. However, Byrne isn’t arguing that artists make their own deals, as publishers and performance rights groups like ASCAP and BMI “negotiate bulk deals as best they can.” Instead, the “right to opt out would be nice.”

4) “Transparent accounting and data sharing”: If labels and streaming services would only share artists’ actual play statistics, Byrne said they can in turn “use some of that information to become better at reaching their fans and marketing their music. That would be to the benefit of everyone.”

Read Byrne’s lengthy open letter here. While it may eat up time reserved for the Sunday New York Times, he shares thoughts on the “democratization of music,” reactions to “digital and technological inevitablists,” and much, much more.

As part of his ongoing artists rights campaign, Byrne recently covered Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” at a concert for Content Creators Coalition-NYC, a group petitioning congress for pay-for-play radio royalties for artists. Catch the replay below.