Not long ago, many hoped the Internet would emerge as a music fan’s Shangri-la, a utopian world where any track, no matter how obscure, was available for free, record labels were extinct and artists made a good living because their fans chose to reward them. Acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails championed this brave new world. “The way things are,” Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails’ frontman, told CNET in 2008, “I think music should be looked at as free. It basically is. The toothpaste is out of the tube and a whole generation of people is accustomed to music being that way.” But that dream has turned into a nightmare, according to Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke.
In a newspaper interview a week ago, the lead singer for the iconic rock band indicated that he and his bandmates may have done more harm than good in 2007 when they self released the album In Rainbows and allowed fans to pay whatever they chose. By turning music commerce into a sort of large tip jar, the In Rainbows offer was hailed as a forerunner of what the music industry would one day become.
Yorke said he now feels In Rainbows experiment may have actually helped technology companies, such as Google and Apple, strip the value out of music for their own benefit. The way Yorke sees it, the Web music services have sought to turn music and other media into commodities, and in the process made them “worthless.” Radiohead helped whet their appetites for free music and now that’s what audiences have come to expect. There’s more music available free of charge to listeners than ever before through ad-supported online services such as Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, YouTube and Vevo. But these free services aren’t paying artists much. A long list of them have been critical of the royalties paid by the subscription services. Acts such as Coldplay, Adele and Tom Waits initially refused to distribute through Spotify and other subscription services.
Ironically, the large labels are very supportive of Spotify and some of its rivals. After a decade of trying to stamp out digital piracy, the three top record companies: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group, now appear resolved to compete with copyright infringement by supporting innovative digital platforms — not so different from the vision Napster and Grokster proposed before the labels sued them out of existence. Said one industry insider: “The labels also appear to have accepted that there’s just less money now in recorded music and that it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.” For these reasons, the labels have embraced business models that may pay less but provide audiences with what they want most: convenient and dirt cheap access to songs. It seems to be working. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, one of the music industry’s trade groups, said last week that it saw its first increase in annual worldwide music sales since 1999.
Many artists seem to be coming around to this way of thinking. Coldplay and Adele are now on Spotify, and in December, the Stockholm-based company announced a deal that was sure to have the doubters scratching their heads. CEO Daniel Ek proudly unveiled a pact Spotify signed to distribute Metallica’s music catalog. Metallica is the rock band that sued Napster and had long refused to even sell on iTunes. Now, here they are, embracing what some artists argue is the lowest grade of digital distribution; allowing listeners unlimited access to their music in exchange for a cut of ad revenue.
And certainly, not all of the new streaming services are welcome by the labels. The record companies are battling an attempt by Pandora to convince Congress to lower the royalty rates webcasters pay. In November, a group of artists also came out against Pandora’s proposed legislation and performed during a protest on Capitol Hill. Linda Perry, who penned the song “Beautiful,” a hit for singer Christina Aguilera, said that between January and March last year, “Beautiful” was played more than 12.7 million times on Pandora and for that many plays Perry earned $349.16.
Increasingly, however, it seems that the digital revolutionaries are coming back around to the old industry model for recorded music. Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor very aggressively tried to find alternatives to the label-dominated methods of selling and distributing music in 2007 after he dumped his record company. In 2008, Reznor financed a similar song giveaway as Radiohead’s for rapper Saul Williams. After the results were in, Reznor said he was “disheartened” that only 18 percent of the more than 150,000 people who downloaded Williams’ songs chose to pay for them.
In 2012 Reznor established new ties to a record label. In September he announced that one of the band’s he is in, How to Destroy Angels, would join forces with Columbia Records to distribute the LP, An Omen (Reznor recently announced that he is reforming Nine Inch Nails and the band plans to tour this summer). On his Facebook page, Reznor wrote: “Complete independent releasing has its great points but also comes with shortcomings.” In October, during an event to promote a book by rocker David Byrne, Reznor explained the decision for releasing An Omen with a major label. Reznor told the audience that How to Destroy Angels retains creative control, but when it came to marketing the band members believed they could use some help.
“No one else can write the songs I can write,” Reznor told the audience, “But there’s other people that can do some of that (marketing) stuff. The great part of self-releasing has been control of your own destiny. Nobody has approval. Finishing a song at midnight and putting it out the next day. Getting fans excited with no leak because you have the only copy and you uploaded and you didn’t publish. That’s fun. It felt great, particularly after a long career in the weirdness of the labels. But we wanted a team of people that are better at that than I am worldwide. That felt like it was worth slicing the pie up monetarily.”