9/30/13: Dave Stewart reverses stance, now “worships” Spotify

Brad Hill
September 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

Recording artist and producer Dave Stewart (best known for Eurythmics) has reversed his previous anti-Spotify stance, criticizing Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for “not getting it.” (Yorke famously conducted an angry public withdrawal from Spotify.) A year ago, surmising from Stewart’s public comments, he didn’t quite get it either. At that time, Stewart complained that if one of his albums were streamed nonstop for three years, he would earn only $47. Now, speaking to The Guardian, the man sounds like a newly-hired Spotify brand evangelist: “They [Radiohead] were misinformed. Spotify is one of the few companies that is transparent and actually pays properly [...] as a songwriter you should worship Spotify.”

Deification is certainly an extreme position in the Spotify opinion spectrum. But if holy reverence seems like an exaggeration, no more so than Spotify demonization which has labeled the service “a necessary evil” and “the definition of evil.”

A few days ago, NPR published an article titled, “Does Using Spotify Make You A Bad Person?” Two interesting points underlie the positioning of that article as a piece of ethics journalism. First, the title and its premise assume that readers have an established inner context for thinking about streaming audio as a moral gray area. Second, the question was sent in by a listener/reader, who was presumably struggling with an ethical dilemma related to her Spotify use.

Responses to the article range from polite disagreement to flaming scorn for posing the question in the first place. (The most incendiary comments reside on NPR’s Facebook page.) Overwhelmingly, article feedback refutes the gray-area premise. Some readers describe the value of music discovery in Spotify, and assert that long-tail artists benefit more from streaming exposure, even in tiny payouts, than they would without it. Others cite plain legality, criticizing the article as inappropriate on that basis. Indeed, the should-we-feel-guilty type of article is reminiscent of moral hand-wringing from the Napster days of 1998, when masses of consumers were enjoying an ownership platform that really was struggling to find a legal toehold.

Two media drumbeats contribute to framing Internet radio as a guilty pleasure, no less questionable than unauthorized file-sharing. First is a royalty and payout controversy, which spotlights both the still-immature life stage of the industry and the complexity of rights licensing. Partial information and misinformation skew public understanding of how streaming music content is acquired, and how creators and performers are paid for its use. When Dave Stewart accuses Thom Yorke of being “misinformed” -- and implies that he was, too -- it is easy to believe.

The second media drumbeat is celebrity advocacy on behalf of artists. When Thom Yorke, Dave Stewart, Nick Mason, and others utter their recriminations or reconciliations, their comments beget swirls of coverage and opinionated comments. These star-tinged blasts suffer from the same confusions and partial realities as the coverage of legalities. Stewart’s turnaround, like Nick Mason’s (see Friday’s RAIN Newsletter) seem to represent a growing reversal of celebrity sentiment, perhaps driven by balanced fact-finding such as David Touve’s correlation of streaming revenue to broadcast revenue. (PDF here.) Touve deconstructs ASCAP’s “Songwriters Under Attack” media campaign, and concludes that music creators might receive identical revenue for broadcast and streaming use, per listener impression. His calculations include some arithmetic runarounds, but notwithstanding those unavoidable fuzzy spots in the math, the report solves flagrant misunderstandings of the difference between one-to-one Internet streaming and one-to-many broadcasting.

In Dave Stewart’s latest epiphany, he forecasts the growing significance of streaming music in terms that Spotify and Pandora have used for a few years: “It’s a volume business.” Streaming companies often respond to critics by saying, “Just wait” -- much as Amazon preached to shareholders in early days of its growth (and still does). The popularity of free online listening is a recent phenomenon. Although the reach of Internet radio has expanded quickly to over half of online Americans, global expansion and distribution to mobile spaces are still germinating. In many cases the per-listener impression impact of a star act does not approach that of broadcast, even when critics talk about millions of streams, and for long-tail artists it is all upside as streaming scales.

Presumably, the expansion of Internet radio will also quiet the morality play staged around its growth.

Brad Hill
September 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

There are two big differences between Napster-style file-sharing and subscription music streaming like Rhapsody and Spotify. The first is that unauthorized file-sharing is, you know, unauthorized. Ad hoc sharing on peer-to-peer platforms infringes copyright, harms musicians to some degree (to an extent argued over the last 15 years), and can get you sued by media owners (although not as likely as it used to be). The second difference is that file-sharing hooks into the desire to own units of music, as opposed to accessing libraries of music. Local storage is losing ground to cloud availability as subscription platforms gain traction.

Streamza, a startup built on the BitTorrent file-sharing backbone, attempts to merge the two consumer priorities in a loop-closing service that locates, downloads, and streams music and video content. Technology like this is not entirely new, and has been built into some BitTorrent clients in the past -- those are the programs which pop up to negotiate the peer relationships needed to grab pieces of a file from the collective of sharing computers, and stitch them together on the downloading computer. During the grab-and-stitch, they start streaming the content to the impatient person tapping his fingers waiting for the file to arrive.

But Streamza differentiates by creating a platform-agnostic service that integrates the BitTorrent process in a way that emphasizes the streaming part, shoving the download handshaking into the background, and putting out an experience that resembles a streaming music subscription. Streamza aims to distribute on all the usual operating systems -- currently on the web, as a Chrome app, and purportedly in iOS (although a search for Streamza in Apple’s app store this morning came up empty).

BitTorrent is merely a technology -- neutral in all ways and perfectly legal, like mp3. But a first-timer to the Streamza web site can discern immediately that this is an unauthorized service, thanks to the “DMCA Requests” link at the bottom of the home page. That's like a badge that says, "Hey, don't blame us." An infringement-free application of Streamza technology could conceivably be applied to BitTorrent.com, a fully authorized walled garden that offers innovative distribution opportunites for content owners who want the efficiency of peer-to-peer distribution. As it sits now, Streamza is offering a broadly accessible way of enhancing the file-sharing experience, bringing faster gratification to the unregulated P2P realm.

Brad Hill
September 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, is a nonprofit open market for public radio programming. Open to any producer, the PRX catalog represents any length, production value, and nearly any topicality. Stations can license programs and series for use, with the PRX clearinghouse acting as a commission-based agent.

As such, PRX has fulfilled a secondary distribution role, helping producers gain programming slots in radio schedules. For most listeners, exposure to public radio content is skewed similarly to the music star system -- they enjoy the hits (e.g. Radiolab, WaitWait Don’t Tell Me, Fresh Air) are are unaware of the longer tail. PRX is moving to change both those issues, increasing attention to its own role as a publishing platform while giving listeners are better sense of available options. The vehicle for accomplishing this is PRX Remix, a straight-to-consumer app featuring PRX shows that you probably haven’t heard on your local NPR station.

Unmodestly, PRX Remix calls itself, “The greatest radio station of all time.” Hyperbole aside, the emulation of radio playing is the app’s drawback. There is no interactivity or searching. There is a play button … that’s it. (Testing for this write-up transpired in the Android version.) the playlist is curated, not arbitrary, with short introductions of each programming piece. As such, PRX Remix proves to be a passable discovery environment, but the hope here is to evolve the app into a directory of PRX programs. Letting users create their own playlists would probably increase time spent with the app, and certainly would expose more long-tail productions.

(First seen in Paul Kamp's Backbone Newsletter.)

Brad Hill
September 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

Free Market Royalty Act: As promised (or threatened, depending on one’s perspective), on Monday morning Rep. Mel Watt introduced a bill that would have broadcast radio pay artist royalties, evening the playing field (again, depending on vantage) for Internet radio services. No doubt a developing story with reactions and commentary to come. (See Inside Radio note here.)

FAA prepares new gadget recommendations: Before long you’ll be able to listen to downloaded Rhapsody/Spotify/Rdio (to name a few) playlists while ascending to, and descending from, 10,000 feet. That annoying and arguably nonsensical devices-off period will be discontinued if the FAA, as reported, recommends that airlines eliminate it. Flying rules are determined by each airline, but are strongly influenced by FAA recommendations. Airplane Mode will still be required of devices during airplane use -- and the enforcement problem is not solved in the slightest. (See Digital Trends here.)

The Audio Industry Summit: This gathering is held in conjunction with Advertising Week in New York. Radio Ink covers highlights of last week’s sessions, which included discussions of the Arbitron/Nielsen merger, streaming radio, social media, and the future of radio. (See Radio Ink here.)