Radiohead's Thom Yorke Pulls Songs From Spotify As Artists Fight For 'Leverage'

07/15/2013 08:21 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Streaming music services such as Pandora and Spotify promise a seemingly limitless song selection for listeners and actual royalties for artists. But amid growing complaints from artists that the Internet music services are hardly ideal for their bottom line, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has become the best-known artist to pull his music from Spotify.

Yorke yanked his band Atoms For Peace's album, along with his 2006 solo album "The Eraser," from the site. Radiohead's longtime producer and a Yorke collaborator, Nigel Godrich, has joined the crusade. Radiohead's own music still appears on Spotify. On Sunday, Yorke tweeted an explanation his arguments: "Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will no get paid. meanwhile shareholders will shortly being rolling in it. Simples."

Yorke's highly publicized move against Spotify is unlikely to stir more than a ripple against the music industry's move toward streaming services. His fight recalls Pearl Jam's protest against Ticketmaster in the 1990s -- principled, but very difficult to win.

Yorke didn't directly ask Spotify to pull his music from the site, according to a Spotify source. He instead had his recording label, XL Recordings, make the demand on Spotify, suggesting the label had no problem sacrificing whatever potential profit Spotify could offer to appease one of its most important artists. XL Recordings did not respond to a request for comment.

Spotify CEO and Founder Daniel Ek tweeted back a defense of his company, arguing that his service could be potentially more profitable for artists than mere downloads. He tweeted: "my argument is that it pays more than downloads if you look at it longer than a few weeks. You get paid every time someone play."

At issue is pay rates and power. Ek didn't mention that his company's pay rates amount to fractions of a penny per spin.

Damon Krukowski, a member of indie icons Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi, started streaming his music at his own site, partly in response to the streaming services' low pay rates. In a Pitchfork essay in November, Krukowski pointed out that although his band's famous single "Tugboat" had been played 5,960 times on Spotify, his three band members were paid $1.05, or 35 cents each.

In December, after Pandora had lobbied Congress for help in reducing royalty rates, artists suggested to The Huffington Post that their future may be in boycotting the streaming services. "I think that some artists and musicians would indeed pull out of the company if Pandora manages to get the rate lowered," said Laura Ballance, co-founder of Merge Records, home to Arcade Fire and her own Superchunk among others.

In response to Yorke's protest, Spotify released a statement defending its practices. The company reported that it will have paid out $1 billion in royalties this year. "Much of this money is being invested in nurturing new talent and producing great new music," the statement read. "We're 100% committed to making Spotify the most artist-friendly music service possible and are constantly talking to artists and managers about how Spotify can help build their careers."

Krukowski told HuffPost he thought Spotify's statement was "ridiculous." "They are not a record company," he said. "That's the big change we're going through." The industry power is shifting to companies like Spotify and their investors, including Goldman Sachs.

Under this new dynamic, the issue really is about leverage, said Casey Rae, deputy director of the Future of Music Coalition. "The frustration is a lot of musicians feel they don't have a say in this stuff," Rae said. While he said he's unsure what impact Yorke's decision will have, "Anybody who is working toward that goal of getting more artists to have any leverage in this environment deserves a high five."

Spotify is beholden to shareholders -- not music, said Rae. While Spotify may help artists reach listeners online, "the average musician has zero leverage over terms of compensation."

Yorke's move may not become a trend. Other record labels may not be so righteous with their artists (although the Black Keys appear to have successfully withheld their latest album). It's even more difficult for artists to pull out of Pandora, which operates under different regulations. The company isn't worried about artists yanking their music from its services in part because they simply can't as long as Pandora keeps paying its fees.

Krukowski said Yorke's move changes nothing. "Yorke and people of that ilk have no better ideas than anybody else," he said. "They don't know what model to follow either. ... I don't think stopping people from hearing your music accomplishes anything."

But at least one indie label owner agrees with Yorke. Katy Otto, a long time music veteran, who runs a label, tweeted back at Yorke: "Thank you for saying this. I have a small, indie label, and it is the worst. I try not to use unless bands want it."

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