Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke fired his latest broadside at one of the biggest digital media titans in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, saying that YouTube and Google have "seized control" of art in a maneuver right out of the WWII playbook. Yorke pontificated about his personal use of an ad blocker, YouTube's profit margins, and the pressures being levied on artists today:
A friend of mine told me about this app to skip commercials on YouTube... They put advertising before any content, making a lot of money and yet, artists are not paid or are paid small sums, and apparently this is fine for them...
I don't have the solution to these problems. I only know that they're making money with the work of loads of artists who don't get any benefit from it. People continue to say that this is an era where music is free, cinema is free. It's not true. The creators of services make money — Google, YouTube. A huge amount of money by trawling, like in the sea — they take everything there is. "Oh, sorry, was that yours? Now it's ours. No, no, we're joking — it's still yours." They've seized control of it — it's like what the Nazis did during the second world war. Actually, it's like what everyone was doing during the war, even the English — stealing the art of other countries. What difference is there?
Yorke may be irascible, but at least he's consistent. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, he remarked that Apple and Google were rendering music "worthless"; a few months later, he and producer Nigel Godrich yanked Yorke's solo work and their work together in Atoms for Peace from streaming services like Spotify and Rdio. (Radiohead's catalog remains available on streaming services today, and Yorke's solo work is available through Apple Music, making it the exception to his "no streaming" policy.) He once called Spotify "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse," a magical turn of phrase no matter the target.
Yorke's also spent the last decade-plus experimenting with alternative release strategies for both Radiohead's music and his solo work. The band was an early pioneer when it came to advance streaming its landmark 2000 LP Kid A, and it famously went straight to fans and allowed them to pay whatever they wanted for 2007's In Rainbows. He released 2014 solo album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes using a paid BitTorrent bundle, calling it "an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around."
There's a real difference between Google's business and the Nazis' systematic plunder of Europe
His heart's in the right place, but comparing Google, YouTube, and everyone else's business practices to the Nazis' systematic plunder of European art collections and galleries probably isn't the best way for Yorke to make his point. What's the difference Yorke is searching for? The Nazis stole, hoarded, and burned art that didn't meet their standards for ideological purity; they did it in the hopes of one day foisting a titanic, "cleansed" culture vision onto the rest of Europe; they did it because Hitler was a failed art student who bore that shame for the rest of his life.
Google and its competitors aren't going to pay artists more money than they have to for the sake of benevolence. They're businesses, and their goal is to make as much money as possible. That's a bummer if you're someone who makes art or appreciates art and find yourself dependent on these businesses for income, but it doesn't merit a comparison to a campaign based on insane, virulent prejudice. These companies aren't gobbling up every single copy of every album released in a given year and eradicating all the hip-hop and country LPs because those genres don't fit their purposes.
Yorke has made some genuinely bold decisions when it comes to releasing his own music, decisions that were by-and-large successful. They were helped along by the immense size of his fan base, but they still helped to chart alternative paths forward for artists dissatisfied with the current digital media climate. If he wants to be the most effective advocate possible, he should be talking about the success of his own efforts to find a better system. Dragging wartime horror into the conversation only delegitimizes the truly meaningful things he can offer other musicians.
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