Should smaller artists follow Taylor Swift’s anti-Spotify stance?
taylor swift

If streaming really is the future of music, what does it mean for the smaller artists and independent labels? Nick Mitchell spoke to one such artist and one label owner to find out how they’ve been affected

It’s been a turbulent few weeks for Spotify, after the debate around streaming was spectacularly reignited. First, Taylor Swift, one of pop’s biggest names, pulled her entire back catalogue from the service, saying that she was unwilling to contribute her life’s work to “an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music”. This came after her latest album, 1989, sold more than 1.2 million copies in its first week in the US alone.

It sparked a bitter war of words between Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and Swift’s label Big Machine, in which neither side came out smelling of roses. And, just last week, on this side of the pond, it was revealed that Take That have signed a deal to stream their new album III on Google Play Music exclusively until the New Year. Not that this decision was driven by anything other than further swelling Gary Barlow & co’s coffers.

And yet it remains hard to argue against the assertion that the future of music will be dominated by streaming, and one company have been the quickest to take advantage of this seismic shift. Despite failing to break its run of annual operating losses, last week Spotify posted a 73% rise in revenues to €746.9 million. The Swedish service also has 50 million active users, 12.5 million paying subscribers and it has paid out $2 billion of royalties to labels and music publishers since 2008.

But while the debate about Spotify and streaming rages in the gleaming office blocks of the corporate music industry (at least what’s left of it), what about the independent labels and new artists? Thom Yorke and David Byrne are just two heavyweights who have questioned the benefits of Spotify to new and emerging artists, and the fact remains that, while Ek loves to quote the $2 billion royalties figure, there’s no way of knowing how much of that sum ever made it down to the music-makers.

The Pictish Trail
[Johnny Lynch: “It’s about providing an enjoyable listening experience” – picture: David P Scott]

So is streaming really the future of music?

Johnny Lynch, who records his own music as The Pictish Trail and is the founder of independent label Lost Map Records (and before that, co-founder of Fence Records), has decided to keep the majority of his and his roster of acts’ music off Spotify. So is it important for a small label like Lost Map to keep a tighter control of the revenue streams?

“The entire Lost Map catalogue is in fact on iTunes, and one of my albums – Yes And Dance by Silver Columns – has been available on Spotify since its release,” he says. “But most of our stuff isn’t on Spotify. As an independent record label, it makes no sense for us to have our complete catalogue available on this platform; not just because it offers no financial incentives, but primarily because it has attracted too much negative publicity. It’s not cool. It’s too corporate.

“More so than revenue streams, I think it’s important for indie labels to keep control of how their music is being presented to the public, servicing their artists’ work in the best way they can. It’s not always about reaching as wide an audience as is possible – it’s about providing an enjoyable listening experience.”

But while maintaining control is important for Lynch, for others, a potential audience of 50 million people is too good an opportunity to pass up. Dave Hook, aka Solareye, is the frontman and lyricist for Stanley Odd, an Edinburgh hip hop act whose 2012 album Reject was nominated for the Scottish Album of the Year Award.

“As an independent artist, my feeling is that streaming services allow us to contact an audience that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach,” Hook says. “With relatively slim budgets available to advertise what we do, we have to ensure that our music is accessible through every online means available. People listen to music through so many access points, from YouTube, to SoundCloud, to Spotify, to iTunes, Amazon. If we want to maximise the potential number of folks that can hear us, then we need to have a presence in as many places as possible.”

Is the exposure afforded by Spotify too valuable to ignore?

The risk of losing out on a mass audience does not concern Lynch, who argues instead that other platforms have more engaged listeners.

“I’m not worried about the exposure element, really, ’cause we have stuff on SoundCloud and YouTube – two platforms that cater for more interaction from both artist and audience, and that are more popular than Spotify anyway,” he says.

Despite his reluctance to make whole albums available for free, Lynch can see the benefits of attracting potential new fans by offering tasters of the full records:

“I’m not totally anti-Spotify, though – I appreciate that it’s just another way for people to stream music, and in that respect I can foresee the possibility of us making singles available, for a limited time, in much the same way as a single is serviced to radio. I’m not into the idea of making absolutely every track from every album available on there, though – it’s disrespectful to the music.”

Is this the end for physical sales?

One curious aside to the seemingly relentless rise of streaming and digital music is the resurgence of vinyl. More than one million vinyl records have been sold in the UK so far this year, the highest figure since 1996. While downloads and iTunes have been making CDs look dated for years, it seems that the more committed listeners still cherish the quality of vinyl – and the inimitable thrill of finding a rarity among the record shop racks. For Lynch, physical sales are the lifeblood of his business.

“Although we sell some stuff on iTunes, our sales are predominantly physical,” he says. “There’s a real hunger for vinyl at the moment; as music has lost its monetary value via the mainstream channels, there’s been a groundswell in the margins for ornate physical product. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, but it’s a culture that has been nurtured by events such as Record Store Day and organisations like the Independent Label Market. As with any art form, context is everything, and an audience enjoys the story around a record’s release – artwork, a physical/tactile embodiment of the music, can often tell a large part of that story.”

And while Hook is keen to ensure Stanley Odd’s music is available by any means at their disposal, he admits that, of their total income as a band, “a very small amount comes from streaming services”. For him, it’s important to look at the bigger picture, with “multiple sources of income becoming the standard”.

What about the artists?

However, Hook does have a word of warning for the likes of Spotify, Apple’s Beats Music and YouTube’s new Music Key service.

“Recorded music needs to be valued and recognised for its worth,” he insists. “When artists cannot find a way to make a living from the music that they create then the art will no longer get made […] It is very important to ensure that these new frontier music technologies are regulated in a way that respects the artists’ work while also being affordable and convenient for the listening public.”

While the eye-watering figures quoted in the public spat between Swift and Ek might appear to hold little relevance for small and independent labels, Lynch still believes that it has reinvigorated the debate over whether artists should give away their music for free.

“With so much choice afforded to us these days, we’re all becoming much more conscientious consumers,” he says. “We like customising our orders according to our needs, wants, beliefs. I think the general consensus is that artists are being ripped off, and when one of the biggest acts in music – Taylor Swift – says that she doesn’t want her music on there, Spotify may well have reached its commercial peak.”

Whether or not you agree with the prediction that streaming will be the rescue pod for an ailing music industry, it’s clear that there are major doubts surrounding both the viability of the ‘freemium’ business model, and transparency around who, exactly, is getting paid. Services like Spotify will need to resolve these questions if they are to become the default way in which we all listen to music in the future.

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