Radiohead front man Thom Yorke took to Twitter over the weekend to announce he’s packing up his guitar to leaving Spotify. Angry over what he considers unreasonably low payouts to musicians from the streaming service — especially new artists — Yorke pulled his solo album, The Eraser, from the service, along with Amok, the latest release by his side project, Atoms for Peace, which Yorke fronts with longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead tracks, which Yorke and Godrich do not control, remain available).
Yorke is hardly the first musician to complain about what he earns (or not) from streaming on Spotify, of course. It’s the same complaint many musicians have with streaming on Pandora as well. And having seen my own chosen profession of newspapering disrupted beyond recognition by technology change — and forced to find a new way of working as a result — it’s hard not to be at least somewhat sympathetic. But ultimately Yorke is barking up the wrong tree.
Pandora streams music under a compulsory license established by Congress and pays a statutory royalty to rights owners. Whether the amount it pays is fair or not, Pandora pays what the law requires.
Spotify doesn’t operate under the compulsory license (which doesn’t apply to “interactive” services). Instead, it negotiates payments directly with rights owners — both sound recording and publishing rights. But whatever it’s paying is, presumably, the market rate for those rights. Because there’s no compulsory license a rights owner doesn’t have to accept that rate, as Yorke and Godrich have chose not to do. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to complain that Spotify isn’t paying more than the market rate for rights.
If Yorke and other musicians are suffering because of streaming, Spotify and Pandora are merely symptoms of what ails them, not the cause.