David Byrne Talks Artists' Rights, Spotify & Touring

David Byrne
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David Byrne attends the 'Mood Indigo' New York premiere at Tribeca Grand Hotel on July 16, 2014 in New York City.

'Artists in general can be given more agency regarding what happens to their work,' Byrne tells Billboard.

Recording artist, songwriter, label founder, producer, author, actor: David Byrne, 62, has seen the entertainment business from many sides during his four-decade career.

Amid hearings on copyright and music licensing before the House Judiciary Committee, Billboard reached out to Byrne -- a member of the newly formed Content Creators Coalition, a group of musicians, authors and other creators seeking better terms for online use of their works -- for some thoughts on the state of artists' rights. He responded via email from London.

Congress is taking a hard look at music licensing this year. What would you say to Congress about the state of music and creativity in 2014? What can Congress do to help artists?

I think that artists in general can be given more agency regarding what happens to their work. I don't own my own old recordings, a similar situation to many artists, so I have no say whether they are licensed to YouTube, Spotify, Beats, Apple, you name it, and for what percentage and for how long. If that's where music consumption is going, much of it is completely out of my control. I do at least control the publishing (which not every artist does) so that gives me a foot in the door: other kinds of licensing -- films, TV, etc. -- are up to me.

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Philosophically, I think the issue is: Do we always do what is best for the consumer in the short run, or do we think more long-term about our culture and quality of life? Is the giant corporation that underprices everyone else -- and therefore seduces the consumers by the boatload -- necessarily best for our future? And not just for the future of creatives, but of all of us? In France, for example, there are regulations regarding this kind of corporate price-undercutting that protects small bookstores and publishers. As a result, the consumer is more or less forced to pay a base price for a book, but there is a still a culture of bookstores and small publishers. The consumer might have to pay more than they would (for a while, anyway) at Walmart or Amazon, for example, but there can be more diversity and survival for smaller and medium-sized companies and vendors. It's a trade-off. In musical terms, I think it comes down to this: Do we want to continue to support recording musicians beyond the top handful, or do we want have lives surrounded by creativity of all sorts?

How has the decline in the sales of recorded music affected you? Do you now spend more time on touring and other projects?

I've always been budget-conscious, but I'm even more so now. I'm lucky, I came up and got somewhat established when record companies still spent on marketing and all the rest for medium-sized artists -- a lot of those budgets have dried up for artists coming up now. I tour regularly, yes, but no more than I used to. It is a source of income, more than sales of recordings, but I also feel the concertgoer deserves his or her money's worth. Tickets aren't cheap. So we artists have to give as much as we can and balance that against ticket sales.

I recently spent a lot of time on a musical ["Here Lies Love"] and though it hasn't been a big source of income for me, I could see that for creative folks these other avenues could be a way to survive.

Profit is difficult in digital music. The rates paid by Pandora, which are set by a board of judges, are believed by many artists to be too low. Pandora is not profitable, although it has successfully raised money through public stock offerings. Spotify negotiates rates with record labels. It's a privately owned company that is probably not profitable yet. How should the needs of the artistic community be balanced with the needs of digital services?

The Pandora model, and that of many other internet companies, is, IMO, like Amazon: hang in there for years making no profit, undercut existing businesses who do have to make a profit, and continue to seduce investors with the numbers. See above: It's super-convenient for the consumer, who is happy in the walled garden ... for the time being, at least.

Spotify negotiates rates with record labels. It's a privately owned company that is probably not profitable yet.

See above: It's not hard to undercut your competition when you don't have to make a profit! Yes, the streaming companies "negotiate" with labels -- but the (big) labels are investors, which is clearly a conflict of interest. If and when Spotify goes public, these labels stand to make a lot of cash -- possibly way more than they'd ever make from the minuscule percentages derived from streaming. The labels therefore have no incentive to get tough with the streaming companies -- very, very clever. It does seem like short-term thinking: streaming income is not sustainable for the top .01% of musicians, and other forms of income from recordings are shrinking daily.

How should the needs of the artistic community be balanced with the needs of digital services?

Artists should have some say in what the deals are, where they are, and for how long. There needs to be transparency: Artists should have access to data on their streaming income in a way that's comprehensible. Right now, it's mostly the labels who have this information. (I've been trying to understand my Warner Bros. streaming data for years now and can't make head nor tails of it. Warner, to their credit, are being very cooperative, but the form in which the numbers are presented is baffling -- maybe intentionally. No artist who can't afford a team of business managers could possibly make sense of it.)

Record labels and performing artists are not paid for performances on terrestrial radio, with a few exceptions from direct deals between labels and broadcasters. Do you think Congress should create a performance right from radio?

Absolutely -- this one is a no-brainer. Every country in the world does this except North Korea, Iran, China, Vietnam, Rwanda. There is movement to change this. Non-profit radio -- college and public radio, for example -- would be exempt.

There is a large disparity between royalties paid by digital services to record labels and music publishers. As a songwriter, do you feel the songwriting side of copyright should be worth more?

Yeah, I do, although maybe not as much as the songwriting and publishing advocates think. But see above: the labels are partners with the streaming services, so this is no surprise. This conflict of interest should be eliminated and then we'll see what happens.

Royalty rates are often the result of judges' decisions. Do you think Washington D.C. should have a hand in setting royalty rates, or should buyers and sellers meet on an open market to determine how much labels, publishers, recording artists and songwriters get paid?

This is a tough one -- I might not be prepared to weigh in here. Having to negotiate a million individual deals would seem to be a recipe for chaos -- but given computerized accounting and bookkeeping, it's not impossible to manage the flow of varying percentages. I know this from my own publishing splits: they vary all over the place. I don't know enough on this one.


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