Will Apple's iTunes Radio make Radiohead's Thom Yorke happy?

July 15, 2013 9:27 AM EDT

There may be tough times ahead for Apple [AAPL] iTunes Radio and Pandora.  There's news that  Thom Yorke, Radiohead front man, has withdrawn his tracks from leading streaming music service, Spotify, slamming the service for paying artists peanuts while making millions.

Evolving new business models for new talent

Yorke has pulled his solo album The Eraser and joint project Atoms For Peace from the service, Tweeting that he is "standing up for fellow musicians" by removing the music.

How is this standing up for musicians?

Yorke explains:

"Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will no[t] get paid. Meanwhile shareholders will shortly being rolling in it. Simples."

Spotify has 24 million active users, one quarter of which pay a monthly fee in exchange for enhanced service features, such as listening to music ads-free. Despite making millions it runs at a loss and claims to have paid just $500 million to artists in royalties since inception. A goodly portion of those royalties goes to the labels, leaving artists who actually make the music we love with little significant income.

Thom Yorke's collaborato and producer, Nigel Godrich, wrote on Twitter:

"The music industry is being taken over by the back door... and if we don't try and make it fair for new music producers and artists... then the art will suffer.

"Make no mistake. These are all the same old industry bods trying to get a stranglehold on the delivery system.

"Plus people are scared to speak up or not take part as they are told they will lose invaluable exposure if they don't play ball. Meanwhile."

It's not as if these artists are whistling in the dark. Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Nick Mason recently wrote:

"Nearly 90% of the artists who get a cheque for digital play receive less than $5,000 a year.

"They cannot afford the 85% pay cut Pandora asked Congress to impose on the music community."

Should data be free?

What's at issue here is a conflict of two sets of values:

In one corner sit the ethics of Google (which places little value on the content it profits from) and the streaming music services which share its cultural inheritance.

In the other corner sit the artists who create the music and other cultural outpourings that drive interest in culture itself. On a very loose basis, Apple could be said to occupy space at both sides of the argument, as it fights against the blatant imitation it sees within Android and Samsung devices, ('9 Ways Samsung Has Blatantly Copied Apple Over The Years'), while also profiting from the digital economy with iTunes.

The principle at issue is extremely simple: Do artists (a catch all term to include musicians, writers, product designers, software developers) have the right to expect to make a living from their ideas?

Spotify has responded to the critics, of course. "We’re 100 per cent committed to making Spotify the most artist-friendly music service possible and are constantly talking to artists and managers about how Spotify can help build their careers.”

Perhaps they will find a way to achieve this. Surely the arts have value within a technology culture?

iTunes Radio: more of the same?

Purists may bleat the beat that "data should be free," but as every element of our growing cultural inheritance becomes data the value in its creation is being rapidly eroded. Artists flip burgers while musicians give up and take up accountancy. They need to find a way to make a living.

Even while the value of being creative is reduced, big corporations such as Google get to grow fat on their slice of the ads income placed beside other people's cultural contribution. Opportunities for artistic development are also impacted as cash strapped governments are forced to slash arts funding in this new age of austerity.

Does anyone else find it amazing that even as the number of music downloads and the quantity of music streamed continues to increase, the income of all but the largest of acts continues to decline? This creates fewer than ever sustainable and/or accessible paths within which new acts can explore their ideas, leaving our fresh cultural explorations trapped within X Factor and heavily marketed temporary "megastars" while the bleeding edge of innovation become dispirited, give up, and take jobs in accountancy.

The notion that making all the information in the world freely available would enhance human creativity was incredibly tempting in its time. That time is gone. The only people making sustainable business in this new era of access appear to be the big copyright holders and technology firms. Which is fine if you happen to be a copyright holder or technology firm, but not so awesome for anyone else.

There's a gaping hole; a gigantic San Andreas fault within our Google-driven information age -- the lack of accessible routes for new artistic talent to reach global audiences. Sure, there's the search engine, but its logarithms inherently focus on mass-market results, rather than niche needs.

We don't know what Apple's iTunes Radio's deal to new acts will be. I have read that the largest sets of profits from the service will be coughed to corporations rather than sent to indie labels and independent acts. It will likely mean more of the same.

What price convenience?

What I dread is that in exchange for convenience we will see continued erosion in the opportunity within which new acts may emerge.

It goes far beyond music, of course: books, photographs, software and product designs are also more accessible than before. Amazon's recent victory in gaining the right to set prices for eBooks is itself symptomatic of this continued malaise. Samsung's lack of respect for Apple's original ideas is yet another symptom of this lack of regard to originality in creative design.

Is it perhaps time the chatter turned away from the notion that data should be free, and turned towards a discussion as to just how much value we as technologists place in the cultural content that drives our software, services and device sales? I believe creatives should also question the relevance of those firm's that seem to take the lion's share of what money does get distributed in their direction from within the Internet economy.

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