What if musicians went on strike and refused to make their music available on the digital services that have attracted so much negative criticism in recent years?
It's not an entirely pointless thought exercise. People go on strike all the time. Fast food workers in 50 cities around the United States were on strike at press time to protest their wages. Many digital services are often criticized for paying less than a livable wage. The same could be said of the fast food industry.
I have no opinion on the merits of such a strike. This article isn’t meant to rally the troops, so to speak. And it’s not an evaluation or statement on the state of digital royalties. But it's clear to see many artists concerned about digital royalties yet unable to effectively speak their mind.
But for the sake of argument, is a musicians strike possible? Yes. How would it happen? That's hard to say.
An artist cannot go on strike from webcasters like Pandora. Webcasters that operate with the Section 114 statutory license don't need labels' and artists' permission to stream sound recordings. With this statutory license, such a service can stream any commercially released recordings provided royalties are paid, formalities are followed and the service meets certain terms regarding functionality. (iTunes Radio will not use the statutory license. In theory, artists could request to be removed from it.)
But artists can strike against subscription services like Spotify. In fact, they do it all the time -- in a sense. Adele kept "21" away from Spotify for more than a year. Metallica and the Eagles were among the many longtime holdouts. The Black Keys and Coldplay also kept recent releases away from Spotify for extended periods of time. Many albums have been kept off subscription services for the first week or two of their releases.
A strike is more akin to a walkout than a holdout, however, and few artists and labels have actually walked away from services. Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich recently pulled down their songs from subscription services in protest of the business model’s economics. Century Media, Projekt Records and ST Holdings walked from various subscription services in 2011, although Century Media returned to Spotify the following year.
Artists are not going on strike en masse. They're not going on strike in the numbers one might expect if discontent with subscription services is truly widespread. Why is that?
Are artists indifferent? Probably not. Many artists seem to care quite passionately about the economics of new business models -- even if many of their royalty checks would still be slight if payouts were vastly improved.
Are artists uneducated? Probably not. The information -- on both sides of the argument -- are easy to find online. An online search for "economics of Spotify" turns up articles at mainstream sources (Slate, Huffington Post, New York Times), blogs and even Spotify's "latest news" page.
Do artists lack the cohesion and leadership that would allow them to stage a strike? Absolutely. Again, unions do exist, but organizing a large numbers of musicians behind a single would be like herding hundreds of thousands of cats. Music businesses tend to unify behind industry talking points and positions. Individual artists do not.
Do artists lack an easy mechanism by which to strike? Definitely. The issue may not be lack of willingness. I'd wager musicians are no less idealistic and motivated as the general public. But there isn't a mechanism in place to allow for this kind of strike. Musicians unions exist (SAF-AFTRA and AFM, for example) but they haven't taken up this issue. The digital distributors that brokered the licensing deals with subscription services are not taking the lead -- they signed the deals, after all.
The right combination of charismatic leader and technological solution -- maybe an online form that submits removal requests to distributors that are routed to services -- could create the right conditions for an artist strike. Even an online petition signed by a few thousand musicians would get digital services' attention and move the conversation forward.
Unorganized, occasional displays of artist discontent won't change the status quo. But if they act in concert, artists unhappy with digital payouts could make an impact. Once the breadth of services' catalogs is noticeably impacted -- people start noticing their favorite artists are missing -- artists will have attained a meaningful voice. But that would require a level of organization not yet seen.