Sparring With Spotify: Yorke’s Boycott vs. Recorded Music’s New Direction

When Thom Yorke removed his music from Spotify – that is, everything but his older work with Radiohead – two of my great loves came into conflict mimicking an age-old musical conflict between artist and label but updated for the twenty-first century. Since illegal downloading became the most prevalent way for fans to consume music a few streaming services have arisen to combat the tide. The first was Pandora, which I always felt had a clunky algorithm that spit out the same music over and over again. The next was Grooveshark, which was inundated with half playlists made by people with a complete disregard for the English language, worshipers of the misplaced capitalization. At least that had less commercials.

Finally came Spotify, and I felt that the musical Zeus had descended from Mount Labelympus to smite the other programs and illegal downloading as well. Spotify was everything a music lover could have dreamed up: access to almost all the world’s music, an easy format to discover new music and few commercials to speak of. I became so enthralled that I signed up for a subscription, and now Spotify accompanies me everywhere.

Thom Yorke’s music was the inspiration for me to start playing guitar, a subject that could merit its own article. He has always been someone I admired not only as a genius songwriter but as an activist for human rights; the first time I saw Radiohead in concert a Free Tibet flag was draped in prominence underneath the keyboard. Radiohead, at Yorke’s urging, has also been anti-corporation; they made a big stir in the early 2000s when they played their Kid A tour on a stage without corporate logos.

So when Thom Yorke removed his music from Spotify I knew that there must have been some legitimate reason. I only came to that conclusion after my initial reaction—being really pissed that I couldn’t stream his music on Spotify.

In boycotting Spotify, Yorke does make a noble protest against the decidedly poor compensation scheme that Spotify has created for its musicians. The fact that Spotify pays musicians next to nothing (less than £20 for 5,000 streams) is decidedly outrageous, although I’m not sure Spotify would be able to operate without paying its musicians at least far less than iTunes; there is just too much music being accessed far too quickly.

Spotify offers a legal alternative to torrenting, and in that sense its successful — it has shown that using Spotify may cut down on illegal downloads. The same study also shows that musicians don’t benefit from boycotting Spotify; they actually get fewer records sold because more of their music is downloaded illegally.


The fact that Spotify pays musicians next to nothing (less than £20 for 5,000 streams) is decidedly outrageous, although I’m not sure Spotify would be able to operate without paying its musicians at least far less than iTunes; there is just too much music being accessed far too quickly.


What that means for Yorke is that though it is a noble gesture, it is one that is fundamentally out of sync with the direction music is headed. Because of Youtube and because of the failure of government to stop illegal downloads music will never be consumed in the same way as before. Artists must either create a huge effort to stop Bittorrent (a campaign with dire prospects of success), or acknowledge that the way to survive is to appeal to the largest fan base possible and get those fans to come to live shows.

I often support bands that I listen to on Spotify by going to their shows; I would never have discovered these bands without Spotify. Like many fans I can’t afford to have a very extensive recorded music budget, but I will always go to concerts. I love you Thom and I wish music hadn’t gone in this direction but if you are going to help musicians teach them how to adapt, don’t target the ones who are building bands’ fan base.


Ben Dorfman — formerly known as Mr. Stitcher, Northwestern University’s premier male fashion blogger–was born in Berkeley, CA., but still managed to escape the sixties with only a slight “grass” addiction. He once made a music video about pirates in under three days and wrote a song about lozenges. He also used to run a twitter consisting of only puns, but luckily no one will ever find out about that other than his grandma, his father, and his cat, two of which enjoy puns, two of which enjoy randomly poking at a keyboard and acting like they know what they are doing, and one of which needs to be belly rubbed before nap-time. ( Answers: grandma+dad, grandma+cat, grandma). 

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