Streaming Debate: Billy Bragg's Response To Byrne's 'How Will The Wolf Survive…'

08 Apr 2014

David Byrne’s recent blog post on his website ‘How Will The Wolf Survive: Can Musicians Make A Living In The Streaming Era’ is a very welcome intervention in the streaming debate. He not only takes time to respond to critics of his earlier comments, he also makes some helpful suggestions as to how we might move forward. And his comments couldn’t be timelier.

For the second year running, Merlin, the global rights agency for the UK independent record sector, has seen the streaming revenue that it pays to rights holders more than double. If, as this evidence suggests, consumers are warming to the idea of paying to hear music on demand, then the record industry may have begun to address the issue of how to make money in the digital age. The challenge for artists is how to ensure that we get a fair share of the digital pie.

The Internet revolution has had a disruptive effect on all kinds of commercial activities, from bookselling to share trading, but so far, no creative industry has been killed by digitisation. Instead we have witnessed what are merely the latest chapters in a long process of technological evolution. Ever since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, innovative ways of making music available to consumers have come and gone – streaming is just the latest format.

What has not changed is the need for content.

David Byrne worries that streaming-on-demand could have an effect similar to over-fishing, depleting the resource that the record industry depends on. Unlike fish stocks, however, human creativity is not finite. Our ability to emotionally engage with a piece of art means that there will always be a market for creativity.

Technology has changed, formats have come and gone but through all this upheaval content is still king and as long as that remains so, there will always be a way for innovative artists to make a living.

Byrne argues that, if there is no significant money to be made from records – and let’s assume that by significant he means enough for an artist to live on their creative output – then those who don’t do gigs will be unable to make a living. But artists are no longer passive players in the market place, waiting for record labels to release their material.

Digitisation has given us the ability to fund, record, market, disseminate and sell our self produced music via social networks in a manner that simply wasn’t possible in the 20thcentury. Yes, you may have to initially give your music away to rustle up a crowd, but who among us didn’t start out doing gigs for free in order to build an audience?

When Byrne likens on-demand streaming to “a better, cheaper, faster food distribution network that not only eliminates the small delis and grocery stores, but eliminates that farmers as well” he brings a chill to all of us who have spent many happy hours browsing in the small record stores – we feel their loss deeply. But this significant change in the means of distribution of music doesn’t necessarily betoken the end of recorded music per se.

Byrne cites the important role that recordings play in allowing the listener to hear music from other parts of the world – he specifically mentions buying records made by African bands. However, in the old days of physical recordings, it was very rare to find a record shop that stocked African music. Even if you lived in a big city, there may be one specialist shop that imported music from Africa, yet the stock will have been chosen by middlemen who pressed and marketed the recordings.

The Internet allows you to search beyond the parameters set by middlemen. It also gives those who are making the music in Africa the opportunity to reach listeners around the world without having to rely on tastemakers in your country. The opportunities for both listener and musician have been revolutionised by the Internet.

David Byrne doesn’t seem to buy this argument – he says he “seriously doubts if most subscribers (to streaming-on-demand services) are using their freedom to explore and seriously check out artists they’ve never heard of”

Clearly it’s difficult to expect music fans to listen to music they’ve never heard of, but I do think that, for the inquisitive listener, streaming services do offer a gold mine of great music you’ve never heard. I subscribe to Spotify and have been impressed with the depth of their back catalogue. It seems that, by way of dipping their toe in the water, labels have been uploading stuff that has been gathering dust in their catalogue for years. The result being that there is an incredible amount of obscure yet brilliant music on Spotify.

In the early 1980s, I bought a cache of boogie-woogie records from a junk shop in east London. They were all 78rpm singles cut in the 1930s and 40s by artists such as Cow Cow Davenport, Piano Red and Montana Taylor. In the thirty years that I’ve toured the US, I never came across any albums by these artists, yet every single one of these cuts is on Spotify – b-sides as well.

Clearly, the majority of streaming is of popular mainstream artists and the obscure backwaters of boogie-woogie will remain off the radar of most people. Of greater concern is the worry that the ability to break new artists will be severely restricted if super star acts hog all the bandwidth. We need to develop new methods of aiding discovery of new acts. Spotify recommendations is a good tool, but it just tells me to go listen to my old record collection – it even recommended I check out Billy Bragg last week.

Maybe Spotify could develop a new algorithm that recommends you listen to the opposite of what you were listening to last week – a kind of John Peel algorithm that takes you out of your comfort zone and into the brave new frontiers of digital music.

Of course artists have a role in helping to broaden the horizons of their fans, through recommendations and curated playlists. Over the past few months, I’ve been recording links to a playlist of tracks chosen from Spotify’s vaults. The more artists who are willing to engage with the streaming services in this way, the more likely it is that fans will be encouraged to explore.

One of the problems we face with streaming is that no one agrees what kind of service it is: is it a form of sale? Are streaming services licencing our work in the same way that any other creative business would? Or is streaming a completely new beast in the forest?

Byrne seems to believe streaming equates to a sale and asks why would you ever buy a CD or download again if you can stream a track on demand? Let’s not concern ourselves with the ability of artists to keep some tracks off of streaming services and make them only available on CD or download and get to the nub of this question: is it better in the long run to receive a one-off payment for your work, or to receive a payment every time your song gets played? At the moment, the answer is clearly the former. But as consumer habits change and artists become better at negotiating their way around the new digital business model, I would not be surprised if the latter is seen to be as lucrative, if not more so.

Byrne finishes his article by making four suggestions, three of which I heartily endorse.

  • Artists should get 50% of the income that streaming sites pay to labels. 
  • We have yet to fully understand the costs involved in marketing digital music, so it may be that a 50/50 split on new records is not sustainable. However, on records where the costs have been recouped, artists have a very strong case to ask for a 50/50 split of income.
  • Artists should have the right to approve the use of their work by streaming sites. 
  • There is a lot of mistrust out there between artists and rights holders over the issue of streaming royalties. By giving artists the right to opt out, the onus would be on the rights holders to make the case for inclusion, giving artists some negotiating leverage.

Transparent accounting and data sharing.


Spotify have already identified transparency as a crucial facet in building trust with artists. They have recently launched a service that allows artists to see how much money Spotify have paid to the rights holders of their music – in effect accounting to both artist and their representatives. By comparing the amount that their work has earned with the amount they have been paid by the rights holders, artists should gain a better understanding of why their royalty payments are so low.

Spotify have also made it possible for artists to sell merchandise and tickets to their fans who are subscribers.

Where I part company with Byrne is when he suggests:

“What if there was no free on-demand streaming (unless the artist is directly controlling that access through their own site or as a publicity endeavour)? In other words, the free ad-supported Spotify version should go away, as would free music on YouTube”

I’m afraid there’s no way that YouTube, Spotify and the rest are going to ‘go away’. That particular genie will not go back into the bottle and if we as artists choose to make that our key demand we will look both self-serving and naïve. This doesn’t mean that we should accept the status quo. Clearly, the service offered to the public for free by YouTube undermines both copyright and remuneration agreements and needs to be challenged. In my opinion, YouTube is a much greater threat to creative viability than the emerging streaming services, undermining as it does the idea that you should pay for music.

I hope David Byrne’s latest comments on streaming herald a willingness among artists to become involved in the debate about the way the record industry is changing. We provide the fuel that drives all these amazing services and we need to engage with them in order to ensure that the next generation of artists are able to make a living on their own terms in the manner that both David and I have done. Our concerns need to be taken seriously both by innovative tech start-ups and legacy rights holders because it’s clear that the pie is growing.

The figures produced by Merlin suggest that consumers are engaging with steaming services that they are willing to pay for. As a result, rights holders are beginning to see some serious money. Rather than wishing away these innovative music services, the question artists need to be asking is, when revenues from streaming have doubled year on year, why aren’t musicians feeling the benefits in terms of increased royalties?

This article is an updated version of a keynote speech that I gave last night at an event organised by MusicTank entitled The Artist Economics of Streaming.

Billy Bragg – Independent Artist

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