View From The Side: Stream My Arse


I've been making records of varying degrees of success since the '80s. I get asked what I think of Spotify and immediately I go into a bit of a twitching, foaming paroxysm. You may have heard in the past some major names have pulled out of the 'service'. It is no coincidence that these names have enough clout to counter the wishes of the major labels they are on. What follows is the view of a much, much lesser client.

I first heard of Spotify some years ago from a friend of mine – it transpired later that these chats were in fact coming from one of the authors of the international legal deal for Spotify – who was a proper mate despite being a fairly powerful music industry lawyer. He explained it to me at great length at a party at his palatial gaff. Being a bit dim, this took me something in the region of 8 hours to absorb. Credit to his powers though, as the next day I remembered it all. However, I had difficulty actually believing what he was saying. So the following year involved every discussion we had being essentially about the nature of future revenue for music via the internet – something he has since become something of the go-to guy for, and I definitely have not. I should say at this point, 15 years ago nothing was being earned from the internet. An alarming state of affairs for the fat-cats. Something us thin-cats were ok about because we still sold music and made a living amidst all the free downloading which, at that time, was mainly the domain of a handful of nerds instead of absolutely flippin’ everyone.

Every discussion with him went something like this;

Me: "So you are basically saying we (artists) will earn significantly less, but more often?"

Him: "Exactly! Brilliant isn't it!?"

Me: "So we are basically saying to the entire world 'what used to cost £10, then £1 now costs nothing'?"

Him: "Not nothing! You still get publishing for the playing of your song of course!"

Me: "How much?"

Him: "Not much! but… (jazz hands) MORE OFTEN!". (It’s more like nearly nothing and hardly ever).

Me: "But why would anyone use this and not just the usual free internet methods?"

Him: "Aha! Because it's LEGAL!"

Me: "What does legal mean? Wait, does it basically mean the record labels get paid?"

Him: "Yes! Brilliant isn't it?"

Me: "No. Not really. The labels have never liked us much, they think we are idiots."

(and then, wait for it…)

Him: "Surely it's better for the artist to get something, rather than nothing at all?"

Me (in perpetuity, in all regions): "AAAAARRRRGGGHH!" 

And here is the crux of not only the pro-streaming argument but the argument for all internet media revenue collection. "Surely it's better for the artist to get something rather than nothing at all?". After many years of consideration my crafted rebuttal to that is always "please will you fuck right off”. 

Like a lot of sinister get-out clauses, "Surely it's better for the artist to get something rather than nothing at all?" bears scrutiny only very lightly. All you have to do to see through it is apply it to your own income. Would anyone be happy working the same (it's actually more) hours at the same job for practically nothing? Yes, it really is that simple. I can only give you a figure based on my own income from publishing but it is basically 10% of what is was just a few years ago. Yes, I have taken a 90% cut. If you think it's just because I am old and a bit shit then bear in mind it was a steady figure for over 20 years and dropped by 90% the last 2 years. Almost overnight in economics terms. 

Did I say I only have my own figures to go on? Here is Spotify's own explanation.

The artist is not "the rights holder". You’ve never owned your rights unless you are unusually well-managed, possibly by Mother Theresa of Calcutta. That is the record/publishing company owning the rights and getting 70% of not very much. In essence, what has happened is the oldest story in our business. The tragic tale of the bizarre contractual deal between artist and company has carried on as normal… only worse. Because it's not only a very small percentage of a much smaller amount, most contracts view online revenue as different to record sales and, SURPRISE, means the artist gets even less where streaming is concerned. Most contracts covering digital rights were written over a decade ago and reflect that. The digital part of the deal is even worse than the already laughable deal you get from records. You understand that the person who made the thing gets nearly nothing right? I’ll give you an approximate figure from the BBC on how much the person who made the thing gets from a stream.

Note that Spotify use the language "we only take 30%" … “only”. It's a THIRD for chuff's sake. A whole third before anyone else (the record and publishing companies) get anything. I'm not a scientist but even I can work out that 0.1 is fuck-all but 0.007 is microscopic. You'd have to be played a 1000 times to make 7 cents, which is about 4 shiny English pence.  No wonder the majors speak so highly of Spotify – they own 18% of shares in the company and taking equity in new services is becoming commonplace (the majors are currently in the process of doing it with BskyB and VirginMedia too). So how on earth can you fight something if your 'representatives' are in on it?

Lets take a breath. You jammy gets. I was about to get properly into charts and graphs there and lord knows I like a good graph.

I think the real topic here is empathy. It's almost impossible to sympathise with 'artists'. Bloody great flouncy, boozy, lavender-smelling fops. How can you feel anything for us in our ivory towers with our beautiful toothy faces and plastic surgery issues? It’s beyond reason to picture any of us with kids and bills and wolves sticking their weird doggy cocks through the letterbox and laughing at us. It bursts too many cultural bubbles that the idols might be just like us. Maybe even worse off. I mean if the average DJ or singer earns less than most people in full time work what the hell does that mean about something like X Factor? How dim does that make us as a species? How doomed? 

There is another issue. The tyranny of big name choice. Our society as a whole is far more geared towards the top end lately. Everyone thinks they are some sort of star in the world’s worst show. These arbitrary but plausible figures I am making up show that really only the top 10% of my profession make a living and something like only the top 0.1% are wealthy. Like actors, 90% of us are completely out of work. Many are in other jobs too. You might think getting played a 1000 times is easy for Rihanna, and it is. 1000 plays is a dream figure for home-based underground dance boffins. You lucky LUCKY bleeder, we DREAM of getting 4 pence. Some will say 'Oh yes but you still make silly money in a live situation' and the simple answer to that is; "yeah, but what if we don't?" or, even simpler, yet again merely apply it to your own job. "Sorry no-one pays for what you do anymore, my solution is you work every night and at weekends as well, and still make very little.” If at this point you feel untrammelled rage and confusion, don't worry! It just means you either work in the business or are still a human being. And then a phalanx of mega-cashed fame-droids march across our faces with something like Tidal and you forget everything in a vortex of righteous hate and envy.

We have to puncture this myth that being a pro in the music business is some kind of sex holiday. It's not. It's a type of office job all the daylight hours and doesn't stop in the twilight and goes through into the next morning. Every night and every day of the year if you are up and coming. Add non-stop travel to that if you have any degree of success.

So I guess the single issue of all this is: are we able to empathise with those who deserve none? 

And, of course, the reason this will not see some sort of industrial action or any kind of effect on the constant stream of newbies and wannabes is that no, nobody is able to empathise with what this job actually is. Because if anyone really actually could put themselves in it and realised that 90% will never make a living and the other 10% may only for a short time and even at it’s peak it is ridiculous and harsh… then seriously… no-one would do it. We’d all look like clapping idiots going WOOO at something that is valued no higher than a bottle of water. And we don’t want that. So we pretend everything is fine. Which is what the industry has relied on since the 1930s. 

All this is exacerbated wildly by Gentleman Amateurs. By this I mean hobbyists who have well-paid, full-time jobs but in their spare time make and play music. Possibly on shiny gear and with well-funded record collections many pros would kill for. Over the last 15 years, DJs and Producers have gone from literally a handful of professionals to it being so widespread it can hardly be called a profession anymore. I will never forget doing a demo for Pioneer in around 1997 for their CDJs and one of the execs telling me that the very idea of a huge corporation like Pioneer making a piece of kit for a couple of hundred pro DJs and clubs was laughable! How on earth do you recoup the millions, if not billions, in R&D, manufacture and marketing? No, they were always designed with the home market in mind. They knew 30 years ago we’d all be at it. Which is why they are a global giant and we are not. 

And hey, listen! There’s nothing wrong with being a hobbyist! Some might call it healthy competition. And, yes, ladies can be amateurs too. I don’t care if you hate me it’s waaay too late. Chrysalis and Murdoch fought over my soul many years ago and the only loser was me. 

I always liken it to sport. What is the difference between a wildly talented amateur and a shit-awful professional? Is it showbiz? I think the distinction now is that everyone is a portly 40 year-old, huffing and puffing in the park with jumpers for goalposts and a lot of them genuinely think they are George Best. And I have heard responses to this along the lines of;

 “Well Sheridan, you made some awful pop records in the 90s and I made some coma-inducing bedroom analogue yesterday, so therefore you can’t tell me what to do because I played in a skip once in Dalston.” 

Fair enough. But it’s not a question of taste, it’s a question of a functioning business that benefits the people who make the product. Instead of a handful of fat cats. A story so widespread in society now it’s not funny anymore. I’m not here to tell you that you are rubbish because you don’t get paid, I’m telling you that by doing it for free you are really messing it up for the ones you DO think are good. Leave me out of it. I’m not here to argue the toss about whether I get to talk based on matters of taste. I’m saying all over in all kinds of business it suits the super-rich just fine if there is a vast base of ‘product’ that is completely unregulated and made for fun by people who don’t really care if they get paid properly. The whole of the media, arts and fashion absolutely relies on it. If you don’t care about anything else at least charge the bastards properly. 

And what are the effects of no one giving a shit? Well for a start you will see an awful lot more music from people who do it part time and a lot less from people who are genuinely good at it, forced to stack shelves or shut indoors because they can’t afford childcare. And if you think fundamentally that music is a ‘fun’ thing and very much suited to hobbyists you really don’t know much about how all the records you ever loved were slowly crafted and sold to you over the last 60 years. 

Arguments for, from the industry, is that these are the complaints of the old and irrelevant. That the young have nothing to fear. This has always been the stance of the industry. It’s always been about the young and frankly not very experienced being told everything is fine, shut up and take what you are given. Don’t listen to those bitter old guys. They don’t know anything. They are just jealous. They are yesterday’s men with saggy bits and no serotonin left. Old moaners don’t understand about “360” deals and “alternative revenue streams”. Thing is, we actually do understand. Indeed many of us participated in the embryonic versions, back while they were seeing how high they could pee and being frightened of their first fizzy willy. These arguments are always, without exception, from those who gain. Never from young artists themselves. And why should young artists complain? The same people who just told us in great detail that everything is fine just introduced you to cocaine and a taxi account. They never tell you that every single lunch, gram, cab, brass, bumhole and brunch they enjoy on the clock comes out of YOUR money. You’re too busy being too awesome for buses. 

Listen, I get it. Things have changed. There is no going back blah-blah-blah. But a culture of silence only suits the rich. We have to stand up and own our own. From politics to bashment, from work to warfare we are being shafted daily. It has to to stop. And for that we need to start being bothered. And for that to happen we need to discuss how things really are, instead of just pass around unread memes. The powers-that-be rely on no one reading the small print and accepting the status quo more than anything else in their arsenal against us. And no one likes Status Quo really do they?

So here it is. The final stage of the long battle between the idle, drug-addled idiot and the canny business heads behind the curtain. I say battle but that would involve two sides participating. And why isn't there more talk about this if it really is so dire? Quite simply our Americanised culture has demonised any discussion of loss as for and about 'losers'. We no longer talk about anything except in deeply right-wing hyperbole, capitalist and dehumanised terms. Our artists don't do business, horrid filthy stuff. That's what those awful managers and agents are for and surely this is their final victory. This business we call show is all about face. Surely only an idiot and loser would talk loudly about such issues?

… Hang on!