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Is digital irony lost on Thom Yorke, YouTube & Spotify as indie revolt gathers steam?

Blog post by Andrew Teacher

Pretty much everyone agrees that Spotify has helped redefine the music industry but there’s less consensus over whether that’s a positive thing. Whether Swedes get irony or not isn’t clear, but there must have been some head scratching going on when Thom Yorke called them out for supposedly killing music. This, let us not forget, was the man who, in October 2007, single-handedly undermined the concept of ‘a price tag’ by letting people choose their own fee for In Rainbows, Radiohead’s most commercial record in a decade.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Radiohead fan (and to prove it, the main photo to this blog was a photo I took at Earls Court. Here’s my Drowned In Sound review of Hail To The Thief). But Yorke’s act of defiance towards a music industry which had, for 15 years, invested and marketed Yorke’s material, did far more to damage the industry than Spotify.

The reason I bring all this up is because the second big-fat double irony of the digital music wars, again involving Spotify, has been the ongoing fuss over its artist fees. The main bone of contention – crudely précised – is that big artists make loads from it while small acts get bugger all. While the fees per play are miniscule, this broad concept, when viewed in the cold light of day, doesn’t appear to be hugely different from record sales. Except the main difference being the huge mark-up previously obtained from albums accompanies by four lucrative singles, gold plating the pay-packets of record execs through the nineties.

The irony of course is that there’s a far worse culprit than Spotify: YouTube, who pay a fraction of what Spotify do. It came to a head this week thanks to a very public spat as Yorke’s Radiohead colleague Ed O’Brien, a spokesman for the nation’s independent record labels, who have clubbed together with global counterparts calling on regulators to intervene.

Trade body Worldwide Independent Network (WIN), which represents the global independent music community is working with independents’ trade body Impala, to get the European Commission involved. The issue? YouTube basically wants to pay indies bugger all and if they don’t agree, they risk having all their existing content blocked.

The main problem is that there’s no clear comparable to the obvious monopoly YouTube has in this area, one which is highly lucrative to many artists. It’s not quite the same as those rows that broke out when Tesco took on dairy farmers to cut the price of milk or when Marks & Spencer put the boot in to its own suppliers in 2011. Admittedly it’s similar: it’s a dominant force throwing its weight around to the detriment of the small guy.

As ever, Record of the Day’s David Balfour has some great analysis on the story. In his piece he says:

“An important issue… under-examined so far… is: how come the major labels all secured terms from YouTube that they were happy to sign up to, when the deal offered to indies was found so lacking?”

The answer is they all got a bite out of YouTube when it was bought by Google. The equity got shared out paying them off in perpetuity for their silence. And in the spirit of turkeys voting for Christmas aren’t about to peck the hand that feeds quite nicely, thank you very much.

Of course the real loser here is us, the music fan. In a post CDs landscape where even downloads are in-decline and the many emerging bands still draw a loss on tour, digital revenues are absolutely critical to the development and nurturing of labels and talent. The majors seem to have given up doing anything involving risk that doesn’t come with a guaranteed red top coverage and TV plugs attached. And while the BPI has made some valiant attempts to rally the troops behind new British talent, the state of last year’s and this year’s festival line-ups is testament to an industry far too reliant on bands we saw 15 years ago.

There has to be a new way and this way has to involve a fairer share of the pie, without any of this stick waving anti-competitive nastiness currently violating the air. Let’s hope that artists continual to rally round and that YouTube realizes there’s far more value for it being seen on the side of artists than on the receiving end of a few more dollars in the short term.

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