Ever since Internet piracy made virtually any album available for free, streaming services have become a popular legal alternative. Users pay to play — whether by paying regular membership fees or listening to intermittent ads — pulling from increasingly voluminous collections and listening via computers or mobile devices. There are dozens such services — Mog, Rhapsody, Google Music, Pandora and others — but none has garnered more attention of late than Spotify.
The service, headquartered in London and Stockholm and launched in 2006, claims more than 20 million active users. At least 6 million of those listeners pay fees of $5 to $10 that allow them to listen ad-free to more than 20 million songs. But the company isn't without its detractors, the most prominent of which play Nashville this week. Atoms for Peace, the expansive rock experimenters led by Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, pulled their music from Spotify this summer. Their beef was the uneven distribution of the money paid to rights holders — more than $500 million thus far, at least $1 billion by the end of the year.
"Streaming suits catalogue," Godrich offered via Twitter in July. Spotify pays out based on a percentage of the service's total streams, meaning bigger bands and labels with extensive inclusions end up making most of the money. "[It] cannot work as a way of supporting new artists' work. Spotify and the like either have to address that fact and change the model for new releases or else all new music producers should be bold and vote with their feet. They have no power without new music."
The Atoms' stand is certainly justified, but removing music from Spotify and other streaming services is tougher for up-and-comers. Throwing away the chance to reach 20 million listeners is hard to imagine when you aren't already playing to packed crowds — a reality felt by many Nashville bands.
Take Kopecky Family Band. The group combines sleek and buoyant indie pop with elements of modern roots rock that are sure to please any Mumford & Sons acolyte. It's an accessible style, and it serves Kopecky well on the road. They tour frequently through venues that hold a few hundred people, a pursuit that earns about 75 percent of their income. While they don't make much from having their work on Spotify, they see the service as essential to attracting new fans to their shows.
"These major labels, who are constructing deals with Spotify, are able to make a lot more money for their acts than a band like us," says Kopecky's Gabe Simon. His band was able to include streaming commentary with their new album, Kids Raising Kids. It's an opportunity to please diehard fans that Spotify has begun offering many of their artists. But such endeavors don't bring in appreciable income on their own. "When you're a developing band, every cent counts. That's money in the gas tank to go out and tour. Yes, the exposure's great, but we're talking about our livelihood that's being given away for free."
Other local artists use the service despite more vehement frustrations. Warmly warbling singer Chelsea Crowell, daughter of the Grammy winners Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash, has her material streaming on Spotify, but she admits she's offended when fans tell her that they listen to her there. She feels that supporting music should be like frequenting your local coffee shop: You don't insist on an inexpensive latte just because you know the owner. Why, she reasons, should music be any different?
"There is a pretty substantial, bill-paying amount of money that's lost here," Crowell says, adding that she doesn't recall receiving a check for her streams. "But at the same time, I don't actually know how many of those people would buy those records if it wasn't accessible."
But such concerns aren't daunting some new acts planning to unveil debut efforts on Spotify. Scene faves Promised Land Sound, who recently dropped their eponymous debut via Paradise of Bachelors, don't expect to make bank out of the deal, but they're up for any endeavor that can get more people listening to their music. "It's not like a main source of income, but it's not supposed to be," reckons guitarist Sean Thompson.
Local rapper Dee Goodz is hard at work on his first proper effort after a few mixtapes and guest spots. He says the situation really isn't all that different in hip-hop, a genre that already relies on free releases and singles to get the word out. One of the strengths he sees in Spotify is the chance to be featured alongside iconic artists like Jay-Z. To him, it's similar exposure to being shelved in the music section of a Target superstore, though that arrangement would likely pay a little more.
"It increases your chances of you gaining a random fan," Dee explains, "somebody who's never heard of you, but he just likes your artwork."
Of course, that isn't the sort of exposure that a band with members including Thom Yorke and Flea really needs.
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