David Byrne calls for transparency from labels and streaming services

David Byrne has been a strong critic of the insignificant royalties artists receive from both streaming platforms like Spotify and commercial radio broadcasts. In a new op-ed for The New York Times, he’s calling for transparency in how streaming revenues are divided.

Byrne’s piece, titled “Open the Music Industry’s Black Box”, outlines that no one of the major labels and streaming services gives a clear view of how royalties are paid and what percentage of them reach the artists.

He discusses some of his attempts to contact companies like YouTube and Apple Music to have the revenue breakdown explained, but said those conversations hit dead ends.

“I asked Apple Music to explain the calculation of royalties for the trial period. They said they disclosed that only to copyright owners (that is, the labels). I have my own label and own the copyright on some of my albums, but when I turned to my distributor, the response was: You can’t see the deal, but you could have your lawyer call our lawyer and we might answer some questions.”

Byrne also points out that major labels assign streaming income to artists “on a seemingly arbitrary basis,” not necessarily determined by number of streams or revenue generated, and other sources of revenue for labels — “advances from the streaming services, catalog service payments for old songs and equity in the streaming services” — are not available to the artists themselves.

Another discussed problem is the fact that streaming services are paying similar royalty rates (around 15%) as those from CDs and vinyl, despite the fact that the streaming industry doesn’t involve in the expensive process of manufacturing and physical distribution.

Byrne concluded by saying a radical, or “disruptive” approach might be necessary in order to fix what he sees as a broken system that breeds mistrust and has led to a “rising tide of dissatisfaction”.

Read the full op-ed.