Hitting the note or off pitch? Quick fix for music streaming won’t help us
Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art, or so said Claude Debussy in his approach to composition. For Labour MP, Kevin Brennan, a love of music and rules for art is at the heart of his fight against streaming companies, which he claims don’t pay artists fairly.
His private member’s bill, set to get a hearing in Parliament today, has been framed as a “simple fix” for all the problems with music streaming, and promises to deliver so-called “equitable remuneration” (ER) for artists. While it strives to hit the right pitch to keep artists happy, there’s an off-note at the heart of the premise.
The introduction of digital streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music transformed music consumption: unlike the days of CDs and cassettes, it’s easier for musicians to upload content and more accessible for users to listen to a variety of music.
But, with so much choice, comes fierce competition. Artists need millions of streams before they can even think about making a living from it, with Spotify paying around $.0033 to $.0054 per stream according to Insider data.
Currently, Spotify keeps 30 per cent of the revenue and the cut that is then given to labels (around 51 per cent) is divvied up to pay their artists, depending on their own agreements. Spotify is clear: this is a fight between labels and artists, not with them.
Brennan’s vision would cut out the record labels and make streamers pay artists directly whenever someone listens to their song. But, by cutting down labels’ business models, they pull down an industry built around finding and promoting new artists.
Many industry folk support the move. Earlier this year, 156 UK musicians, including Paul McCartney and Kate Bush, called on the government to change the law to “put the value of music back where it belongs – in the hands of music makers”.
Government insiders are confident Brennan’s Bill won’t get very far, even if it does garner some support today. The Government has previously said there needs to be wider research and consultation before any intervention is justified. A move unsurprisingly supported by the music industry.
The debate cuts to the quick of Britain;s cultural institutions.
Chief executive Geoff Taylor of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the industry’s trade association, has lashed out attempts to overhaul streaming. He told City A.M. the bill is “designed in the last century” and “discourages investment into new talent”.
Despite the celebrity backing, the bill is designed to help less popular artists, who lost gig income in the pandemic.
But the cost of shifting the model may well weaken the whole UK music industry and its ability to invest in the artists of the future in a highly competitive global market. If everyone gets an equal slice of the pie, how can an exceptional new voice thrive?
It would also cripple the amount of money labels have at their disposal to pump into new artists. Industry voices are adamant it would impact the smaller independent artists by making the industry less lucrative as a whole and the chance of an artist living off music earnings smaller. Even the largest record labels will need to cut back on funding new talent.
For BPI, the proposals overlook the thriving competition in the UK, with more winners than ever from streaming and the music renaissance: for an artist, 10m streams generates the same royalties as 10,000 CDs, and more than 2,000 artists will achieve at least that this year in the UK alone – double the number who sold the equivalent number of CDs and downloads in 2007.
Taylor urged: “Popularity remains the key determinant of how much an artist earns, and as they are paid per stream, the most effective way to help artists earn more is to work together to increase the value of the streaming business, so that artists share a larger pie.”
Labels support the current approach from the Government to avoid unnecessary intervention in a key industry. Some have actively started laying the groundwork for a more equitable landscape to avoid any slaps from Westminster. Earlier this year, Sony Music announced ‘Artists Forward’, a landmark initiative which sees unrecouped balances wiped from eligible Sony Artists signed before the year 2000 and hadn’t received an advance since.
This aimed to help artists that reigned before the digital age, and has been praised by the MPs in the House of Commons DCMS Committee, who also urged the other two major players, Universal and Warner, to follow suit.
The answer then is working within the confines of the structure we already have, rather than ripping up the rule book to make a point.