David Byrne contributes to the Spotify dialog with unusual balance

David Byrne (Talking Heads) is getting a lot of media attention for his OpEd in The Guardian, in which he contributes the latest high-profile artist opinion about Spotify, and streaming music generally. Much of the commentary on the column attempts to feed the fire of controversy: note the Digital Journal’s inaccurate headline: “David Byrne lambasts music streaming.”

In fact, Byrne provides the most balanced, sober, high-altitude opinion recently published — a refreshing antidote to slashing rhetoric unleashed by Thom Yorke, Nigel Godrich, and others. Opinions center on artist payouts from Spotify and other services, and the truth is that sentiment falls liberally on both sides of the fence. Spotify, as a proxy for the streaming distribution model, can be, and is, viewed as both an extraordinary exposure platform and an agent of devaluing music product. 

Byrne properly notes that the benefit or deficit inherent in streaming depends largely on the artist’s career stage. Exposure at any cost is more important in early stages than later, when monetization of a growing fan base takes priority. 

There are times in Byrne’s 2,200-word disquisition when he seems disconcertingly like a Spotify newbie, or unfamiliar with essential aspects of the service. “There is also, I’m told, a way to see what your ‘friends’ have on their playlists,” he writes with unnerving cluelessness about Spotify’s industry-leading social connectivity. But Byrne’s above-it-all perspective does give him a solid grip on the major levers which shape the streaming business for tech companies, record labels, and recording artists.

It is the end of Byrne’s skeptical prospectus which lends the most credence: he has no answer to the inevitability of streaming music, and he avoids demonizing. More than that, he short-circuits quick conclusions by backpedalling from his own misgivings: “Were recording artists simply spoiled for a few decades and now those days are gone? Even Wagner was always in debt and slept with rich women to get funding — so nothing’s new, right?”

But you know there’s another rhetorical shoe to drop, and Byrne lets it go by extending his thinking beyond music to all Internet-delivered media. This is the quotable quote: “It seems to me that the whole model is unsustainable as a means of supporting creative work of any kind. Not just music. The inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.”

An apocalyptic view to be sure. But Byrne’s column is must-read for its intelligence and scope of thinking — and as a tutorial to flame-throwing artists who scorch the earth with simplistic indictments of streaming music.

Brad Hill