Free music streaming is unsustainable

But artists may not always be so short-changed by the format

Ask an eminent British rock star what they think of Spotify, the online music streaming service, and you may hear some ugly noises in reply. Thom Yorke compared its effect on the music industry to “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse”, after he pulled Radiohead albums from the platform last year. Chris Martin has so far kept shtum. But the Coldplay frontman’s decision to keep the majority of Ghost Stories, the band’s new album, off Spotify suggests he too frets about revenue lost to music streaming, which pays artists a trifling sum compared with digital downloads. Neither has suffered much from the boycott: iTunes sales of Ghost Stories may even have gone up. Fans, it seems, will pay to own music when they have little choice.

A cavalcade of less powerful musicians will hope this forms a bulwark in their battle to turn a profit. (Labels tend to pass on less than 20 per cent of the fees they earn from Spotify, which, at a rate of £0.004 per play, can be slim despite millions of listens.) But any broader anti-streaming revolt is unlikely to make it far. Spotify announced yesterday it had doubled in size over the past 18 months, attracting 10 million paying subscribers and 40 million active users. Modern consumers seem less concerned about owning the music they love: while digital sales fell by 2.1 per cent last year, streaming revenues rose more than 50 per cent.

Even Apple, which dominates the download market through iTunes, and fought Spotify for exclusivity over Ghost Stories, is expected to launch a streaming service in the near future. Artists may not always be so short-changed by the format. A battle between Spotify and Apple for dominance of the market will give record labels the chance to negotiate better deals for their clients. And though any attempt by Apple to undercut Spotify’s subscription fee would hit musicians in the pocket, there are signs that their complaints about low pay are reaching consumers – who may reward the service seen as more “artist-friendly”. As for those who insist on paying nothing for songs, they can have no complaint when the music stops.