Sounds Interesting

Sorry Radiohead, music is a dog, not a god

On the fifth birthday of Spotify this month, Radiohead singer Thom Yorke described the music website as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”.

I love Radiohead’s insistence that pop is art, and I particularly love the du du du du du/ du du du du du du du intro to Planet Telex. But Yorke is over-simplifying when he argues that Spotify is a music industry dinosaur.

Just 100 years ago, music was an awesome god we worshipped at a respectful distance. One would hear music by wearing smart clothes in the reverential stillness of the concert hall. Then came the musical equivalent of Darwin’s deicidal Origin of Species - the gramophone. This begat the audio cassette, which begat piracy, which begat Napster, which begat iTunes, the iPod and Spotify.

The sales pitch for each was the same: anything, anywhere, anytime, for a fraction of the cost of getting a full symphony orchestra to come into your living room in person. And that brings us back to Thom Yorke.

If music is a god then Yorke is right to hate Spotify.

Estimates vary but the consensus is that Spotify pays between around 0.5 – 1.5 cents per play. Don’t tell my boss, but I listen to iTunes just about all day every day. My statistically favourite song is Clowns by Goldfrapp with 42 plays. On Spotify that would have earned Alison and Will between only 21 and 63 cents, which is about what they will have received from my iTunes purchase.

Since I listen less than this to every other song in my collection, the musicians probably made more money because I bought their material via iTunes rather than streamed it via Spotify. iTunes does a better job of keeping musicians in a job, and Spotify is deicide, disincentivising composition of all but “lowest common denominator music” that attracts repeated streaming.

But psychological research from the past decade shows that the “always on” digital music we hear everyday is not always regarded as god-like art. Around half the music we hear in everyday life is actually experienced while we are really doing something else – such as driving, cooking, or reading a fascinating column on a leading news and analysis web site. The music is there to help us accomplish another goal: it is less of a god and more of a dog.

This explains why people simply don’t care too much about music piracy, or tolerate the poor return to musicians from Spotify and similar ventures.

We consume a lot of music, but we don’t always really listen to it. That means each individual listening has much less value than it would in the concert hall. And if we listen to music to achieve some other goal, such as relaxation, then plenty of songs will fit the bill: there is nothing unique about any specific song that gives it value.

This also explains why musicians are the most followed people on social media: always on music in the background to another activity reduces it to friendly entertainment.

Similarly, music used to just arrive in the room and everyone would stop talking and stare at the beautiful wonder, but now it has to cartwheel through the door with fireworks on its feet in order to distract us from what we were really doing: only the very best will puncture popular consciousness.

If you listen to music as art then buy it: otherwise “art music” may disappear and that would upset us all. If you listen to music as “always on” background entertainment then it is worth less to you and you have my permission to reduce musicians’ income by streaming. If musicians stop letting you do this, withdrawing their work from Spotify, then you could always distract yourself some other way.

Just don’t say that Thom Yorke didn’t warn you.