In an op-ed piece for the New York Times, David Byrne confronted one of the most talked-about issues in the music industry today: the lack of transparency.
The musician, also author of “How Music Works”, states that whilst in theory the explosion of music streaming services should be a cause for celebration in the music industry, the situation for artists and producers is less than rosy as royalty cheques fail to match the growth in consumption.
As most deals between streaming services and labels are covered by nondisclosure agreements, Byrne states that the biggest problem for the industry today is a lack of transparency.
He is not the first musician or entrepreneur to state that the lack of transparency is a real issue, but the op-ed brings home to the average reader the fact that even Byrne himself - as a label owner - cannot not get his own digital distributor to tell him what the deal with Apple Music was in respect to royalty calculations.
Byrne also touches upon the major labels' clout over streaming services, the other ways in which they make money from streaming (via advances, catalogue service payments and equity in the services themselves), and the meagre payments coming in from YouTube.
Ultimately, his op-ed ends with a hopeful note, mentioning the Fair Play Fair Pay Act and Berklee’s Rethink Music initiative, calling for a disruptive approach and the opening of this Black Box which could actually lead to a growth in the wider recorded music industry.
Byrne is not the only one to share these concerns, but as much as it would be great to see labels and services abandon nondisclosure agreements, this is unlikely to happen without either extreme pressure from artists - who have proved almost impossible to ‘unionise’ - or a government intervention which may not be impossible in Europe, but would immediately lead to complaints about government meddling with private commercial transactions in the USA.
Ultimately in the USA what may prompt greater transparency will be the growth of commercial players such as Kobalt that provide artists with a clear window into their royalty earnings, prompting others to catch-up.
Transparency is a great goal, sadly the road to get there will be a steep and windy one.
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