Brian Message manager of Radiohead has been an outspoken (if somewhat abrasive) advocate for streaming services like Spotify. We know that the UK Music Managers Forum that he once headed (but for which he still apparently directs policy) is now largely funded by Spotify and Google (Spotify’s ad supplier). Since that time Music Managers Forum have hosted a series of poorly received soviet style propaganda forums on streaming in the US.
But Brian Message has personally been very outspoken in his support of Spotify going back to 2013. He even went so far as to support Spotify despite his own clients Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich strong criticism of the streaming service. In July of 2014 Message stepped down as head of MMF to “focus on the economics of music streaming.” Since that time Message has been jetting about the globe relentlessly defending the streaming services especially Spotify. At last weeks Dublin Web Summit while being interviewed by MusicAlly, Message emphatically agreed with Steve Angello as he suggested that artists that criticize Spotify are doing it for the publicity. Further Message goes on to suggest that Spotify is a form of “exposure” rather than consumption. Look here:
Music Ally: How do we judge streaming’s impact on musicians? When artists talk or tweet about tiny royalty cheques, is that the start of a bigger conversation about how they make their money, and the role streaming plays on that?…
Steve Angello:So for me, it’s one of those: it usually always falls on a time when they need to market a record, y’know? When they attack the streaming services, because they get a lot of publicity out of it. But for me it’s like, I started making music because I want to create music, I didn’t start making music because I want to make money.
For a lot of these young boy-bands or manufactured groups it’s different, because they were put together to make money, so they’re a money-making machine. So for them it’s different, because they need to make money, because the record label’s invested a lot of money. But for me it’s different: I’m just happy that anybody listens to my music. Sometimes you give stuff away for free, and I do that a lot, so it doesn’t really matter for me.
Brian Message: I couldn’t agree more. In fact, just recently with our last Nick Cave project, we very much saw streaming as the language of his business that was going to allow other revenue streams to propagate (emphasis added). And so Nick didn’t do any TV, no promo, nothing in advance. We just used streaming to get to as many people as we can, and off the back of that built his business a bit further up the food chain, at some level. That worked out very very well.
We will devote an entire post to Steve Angello’s uncharacteristically Lefesetz/Rand style statements later, but at last we get the admission from Message (and Angello) that streaming doesn’t really pay. Hence the “other revenue streams.” And why shouldn’t a manager like Message say this? As I have noted here managers are more highly paid on live music revenues (20% of GROSS) than recorded music revenues (20% of NET). If streaming don’t pay shit, the performers will tour more instead. Ka-Ching if you are a manager.
So what I’m really wondering is why does everyone just lob this guy softballs? He has been going at this for a couple years now and it is not like the MMFs ties to Google and Spotify is a secret. What I think everyone who has followed the evolution of policy from the MMF and Message the last few years really wants to know is this:
“Brian, what sort of renumeration, if any, have you received from Spotify? Cash, stock options, speaking fees, travel expenses and other in-kind considerations? Same goes for Spotify’s main ad supplier Google and the Google financed Kobalt.”
This is not some random off the wall question. It is clear Message as head of the MMF was involved to some extent with the Spotify and Google funding of the MMF. How could he not know? So it’s not unreasonable to assume that Message’s 100% pro Spotify “focus on the economics of streaming” junket might be financed by the same people. Adding further suspicion is
1) Message seems to have intimate knowledge of non-public finances at Spotify “Spotify will report its first profit (for FY 2014)”; and
2) Message seems to be defending Spotify’s future viability in the face of competition from Apple Music.
This last act by Message is potentially the most problematic for Spotify if in fact there is a financial relationship. This is because SEC and Spotify investors might see this is a materially important statement if Spotify collapses or has a “down round.” Spotify’s deteriorating finances suggest this could be a real possibility as losses are growing faster than revenues.
But let’s rewind for a second to that disagreement between Brian Message, Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich, because this is truly the crux of the matter:
“Streaming suits catalogue, but 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.” -Godrich
I agree 100% with Godrich’s statement on Spotify. It’s not that Spotify doesn’t work for all artists. In fact those artists with hits that have become recurrent favorites with radio (my tracks Low, Teen Angst, Eurotrash Girl, Get Off This and Happy Birthday to Me are examples) may find that Spotify is a net positive. But my experience as performer, songwriter, publisher, label owner, studio owner, music supervisor and manager leads me to conclude it doesn’t work for
1) new artists
2) niche and middle class artists; and especially
And that is what is so infuriating about Message. As manager of a ground breaking band like Radiohead he must surely realize there is a vast middle class of professional and semi-professional artists and songwriters that are ill served by the streaming model. For aren’t these the bands that Radiohead has long championed? These are indie rock bands, punk rockers, progressive metal bands, underground hip hop artists, folk artists and outlandish artists that defy categorization. No, not all these artists are full time professionals but that’s not to say money doesn’t further their art. A couple thousand buck here and there allow them to take time away from jobs waiting tables and painting houses to not just start but finish great recordings. And just as important, to promote those records to non-mainstream like-minded souls. In a 21st century music industry dominated by a “tyranny of choice” promotion is more important than ever. It’s even required to reach the non-mainstream fans of stoner doom metal or ambient black metal.
But Message and his ilk downplay these sorts of artists. Sure these artists maybe don’t mean much commercially but culturally they have great impact. Sure the economic losses of these sorts of records that don’t get finished (or heard) may not be great but culturally there is a great loss. To put it in Message’s current and crass venture/tech lingo these commercially unsuccessful bands “incubate” the commercial successes. It’s sad that someone like Message doesn’t understand that The Glands leads to The Shins and The Fall leads to Modest Mouse. Citizens of the UK should be especially concerned about the marginalization of these culturally important but commercially unimportant acts. For these sorts of performers, writers and filmmakers have allowed the UK substantial “soft power” and influence that no similarly sized nation in the world enjoys. I don’t expect you brits to go all football hooligan on this, but you should reflect long and hard on this before you start following this very 19th century (American) robber baron line of logic.
Getting beyond what Message and Agnello say, the criticism that most Spotify supporters have thrown at artists like Godrich is that they are pining for a past that no longer exists. Or “old” artists need to update their business models. In a article titled Musicians on the Wrong Side of History Dave Allen former member of the “marxist” post punk ensemble Gang of Four (Now Beats Music employee) gets in touch with his inner robber baron as he surveys a landscape of artists speaking out against low pay from Spotify and other streaming services. “Yelling get off my lawn is not a serious response to a lack of demand” is how Allen smugly concludes the article. Never mind that an avowed marxist is DEFENDING a low paying corporation and railing AGAINST the workers supplying them their goods, he’s just plain wrong. Go back and read what both Godrich and I have said about Spotify. That’s not what either of us is saying at all. If anything this is what Godrich is saying:
“Hey kids, we’re on your fucking lawn and we probably shouldn’t be. Danger ahead.”
Godrich is sounding the alarm for all those up and coming bands, those currently out there toiling away in some basement and those artists-to-be that are only now just dreaming of buying a guitar, drum set or synth. He’s talking about the future of the music business not the past. He’s not talking about his own revenues from his back catalogue. But people like Dave Allen prefer to ignore this inconvenient fact and instead hurl epithets like “luddite” or “mediocre” at artists correctly noting the unsustainable revenue generated by these firms. But streaming services don’t want that message getting out there because there are literally billions riding on the Spotify ad revenue and the coming IPO. Follow the money people. Out the shills.