To put it mildly, a common and understandable criticism of the streaming revolution and market leader Spotify is the relatively low royalty payments many artists receive from the services. While labels have generally managed to work the system to their advantage, most artists have neither the bargaining power or the financial expertise to do the same. However, there are many exceptions, and the latest to speak up is Will Toledo, leader of popular indie outfit Car Seat Headrest, who has released his last two albums on Matador.
Toledo responded on Thursday to a spirited Twitter thread initiated by Portishead/Beak> cofounder Geoff Barrow (and weighed in upon by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and multiple other musicians) essentially saying that it’s impossible for an artist to make a living on income from streaming services. “Ok quick question for musicians: How many of you have personally made more than £500 from @Spotify?” Barrow asked on Wednesday.
“Since 2013 I’ve made almost $30k from Spotify streams of non-Matador albums,” Toledo wrote in response, referencing the 10-odd albums and EPs he released independently before joining forces with Matador. “I use Distrokid,” he continued, referencing a distribution service that for $19.99 per year says it will place an unlimited number of albums and songs onto “iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Amazon, Google Play, Tidal, YouTube, Deezer and 150+ other stores & streaming services” with artists keeping “100%” of their royalties.
“Income from those streams (again, not even counting my two most recent albums) would be enough to support me month to month,” Toledo concluded. “Not trying to brag, I just want some transparency. I see a lot of voices of authority disparaging streaming services as a source of income, and as someone who actually came up using them, it always seemed much better than relying on album sales.”
Through a rep, Toledo declined Variety’s request for further comment.
Yorke, who has been outspoken in his criticism of Spotify (although Radiohead’s catalog and, more recently, both of his solo albums are available on the service), brought increased attention to the thread by retweeting it to his 951,000 followers, saying, “i refer you, ladies and gentlemen, to the comments below …. without further comment 🙏😔.”
In the thread, songwriter Daniel Broadley said Spotify can generate significant income for artists whose music is “very easy to place in genre specific playlists.” Barrow responded, “Yes definitely if you work the system well It can make a living. My issue is that for the bands that aren’t like that it’s almost impossible to make a living as most deals include Spotify.” Barrow continued tweeting, suggesting setting up a “Spotify Lottery” where “Every night a new band gets randomly picked and we all stream their music overnight.”
Barrow’s work with Portishead presumably generates strong royalties, as the top four songs from the group’s 1994 debut show more than 75 million streams; by contrast, the top 5 songs from his less well-known group Beak> total around 1.3 million streams.
While Spotify frequently comes under attack from musicians, in many cases it makes its royalty payments to labels, which then distribute the artists’ share. The most popular streaming service globally is YouTube, which has come under vigorous attack from the music industry for its royalty payments, which are much lower than Spotify’s — although the platform struck new and, according to sources, better deals with Universal and Sony Music last week.
Yorke has been extremely outspoken in his criticism of Spotify. In a widely quoted 2013 interview with the Mexican website Sopitas.com, he said, “I feel like as musicians we need to fight the Spotify thing. I feel that in some ways what’s happening in the mainstream is the last gasp of the old industry. Once that does finally die, which it will, something else will happen. … I don’t subscribe to the whole thing that a lot of people do within the music industry that’s ‘well this is all we’ve got left. we’ll just have to do this.’ I just don’t agree.”
He concluded: “To me this isn’t the mainstream, this is like the last desperate fart of a dying corpse. What happens next is the important part.”