David Byrne calls for transparency from labels and streaming services

The former Talking Heads man has aired his frustrations with the current music business model, and said Apple Music refused to disclose their royalty calculations on his own music

David Byrne has called for more transparency from major labels and streaming services, criticising the lack of information regarding how they pay royalties and what percentage of these reach the artists.

“Many streaming services are at the mercy of the record labels (especially the big three: Sony, Universal and Warner), and nondisclosure agreements keep all parties from being more transparent,” wrote the former Talking Heads man in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. He went on to reveal that he had tried to get Apple Music to break down their royalty calculations over their three-month trial period, only to be told that he would have to get his lawyers involved.

“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 is keen to stress that he is largely behind the streaming revolution, saying that this “should be the greatest time for music in history” and praising Spotify for saving a Swedish music industry that “piracy had gutted”. But he had concerns over how the models currently operate, including the “notoriously complicated” task of piecing together where listeners’ money goes.

“Before musicians and their advocates can move to enact a fairer system of pay, we need to know exactly what’s going on,” he wrote. “Taylor Swift, when she forced Apple to back off a plan not to pay royalties during the three-month free trial period for its new streaming service, Apple Music, made some small progress on this count — but we still don’t know how much Apple agreed to pay, or how they will determine the rate.”

Byrne also criticised the fact that streaming services seem to be 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.

“Compared with vinyl and CD production, streaming gives the labels incredibly high margins, but the labels act as though nothing has changed,” he wrote.

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”.


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