Response to an Interview with David Byrne in Salon (December 2013)

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

“Do you really think people are going to keep putting time and effort into this if no one is making any money?”

What always vitiates the value of these kinds of discussions is the emphasis is always on the economics, when, it seems to me, the real conflict is in the arena of ethics.

Where the two converge is about a cultural phenomenon, always a part of the ethos of American life, but especially since the advent of broadcast media, that is, radio and television, whereby there is an expectation of entitlement about that which is offered unbidden and is always received passively. What these media taught the entire economy and all of its constituents, but especially the largest segment, that of consumers, is that somehow what entertains them—the substance of the transaction that occurs between producers and consumers—is free, because, after they acquire access to the means of reception, it costs them nothing but time, the time of consumption. This phenomenon, and the underlying attendant matrix of the value proposition, has only intensified, of course, and likely has exponentially, if not logarithmically, multiplied since the advent of the Internet.

It’s rarely asked expressly if this is fair. I would go further and point out that except among the producers and the talent (or artists, if you prefer that terminology) this question never ever arises among the consuming population… neither expressly, or even implicitly.

And of course, culprits must always be found, without so much as lifting a finger to exercise even the most rudimentary tools of analysis. Spotify is the latest avatar of the rapacious spectre of technology, exploiting, if not virtually raping, the talent that provides the raw flesh so eagerly devoured by an increasingly voracious public. A 30-second inquiry online reveals, with figures and charts supplied by Spotify themselves (who, whatever else they may be desirous of hiding, are not hiding the gross statistics about who pays and what’s being paid). It seems that as of the latest figures, just slightly more than 20% of the listeners to Spotify are paid subscribers (why this category is always called “premium” is not only mystifying, but, as well, gets my hackles up for its small contribution to the degradation of meaning in the language). Presumably whatever other revenue Spotify receives arrives in the form of advertising, which is undoubtedly not offered at premium prices (I don’t know much, but I know about advertising, and the fact is, ironically, true premium audiences—high spending, well-heeled consumers of carriage trade products—are accessible through media that can command higher prices for such access). I have no doubt, unless the owners and management of Spotify are utterly unscrupulous, that if the ratio of paid to unpaid subscribers were reversed, there would be a lot more hard capital to distribute and there would be far less talk of how the musicians are exploited.

But people, that is, the consuming public, don’t want to pay for anything (from taxes for public services to the cost of certain consumer goods and services in the economy that have been devalued systematically because of a long history of deferred and indirect payment—for example, marketing costs are part of the purchase price; or, the entire infrastructure of the Internet, constituting a system, and utterly blind to and ignorant of the actual content of the data stream, which is the sole product of that system, is a closed economic engine, with disproportionate distribution of the flow of revenue, with the least of it going to the preponderance of those actually creating that content).

It’s always been the case, since the invention of radio, that people cannot be educated to value creative goods. As long as art is seen as a luxury (and that is its history), it will be expected that truly only the rich can afford it. If people paid for their Spotify or their Pandora, the increasing imbalance (with artists getting the increasingly smaller share of the distribution of wealth) will only worsen.

All of this is in the context of free enterprise, of course, and no one (for practical purposes) is questioning that Spotify or whoever is entitled to find a way to create a product or service that people will use, and in using it somehow will generate revenue at an acceptable level of profitability. What is not clear (as unclear as it is to David Byrne what he is actually being paid in royalties by Spotify, if anything) is whether there is a formula stipulated whereby someone knows what proportion of their subscribers must pay for the service so that artists get a fair and equitable share, given their contribution and popularity.

Finally, and I’ll say the least about this, even though there is more to be said about this than any other factor, greed as a factor is incalculable, because greed is the first thing that gets hidden, whether it’s in demeanor, facial expression, or the double-entry accounting. Eliminate greed, and you eliminate a lot of the murkiness of the economic picture. But ethics is where I started these remarks, and as for greed, the notion that “radix malorum est cupiditas” was ancient even before Chaucer immortalized it The Canterbury Tales (for which he was paid handsomely, in kind).

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