Musicians call for industry shake-up to protect artists during lockdown.
Two new campaigns call for artists to receive greater cut of Spotify and streaming royalties.
wo organisations that represent thousands of British musicians and songwriters will today launch a Keep Music Alive campaign calling for urgent changes to the music industry to protect artists at risk of ruin as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
The campaign calls for solutions to the problems that the lockdown has inflicted on musicians. The suspension of live music under lockdown has cut off most artists’ one dependable source of income: gigs. And payments from streaming services such as Spotify are so negligible that they cannot hope to fill the massive hole in artists’ incomes.
Musicians ask Spotify to triple payments to cover lost concert revenue
The campaign has been organised by the 30,000-strong Musicians’ Union and The Ivors Academy, named after the iconic Welsh composer and actor Ivor Novello and based around a community of songwriters and composers. Together, they are trying to alert tech platforms, record companies, politicians and listeners to the worsening predicament of those who make music.
Keep Music Alive’s launch statement makes the basic point clear: “This crisis has brought into sharp relief the fact that creators and performers are sustained primarily by the live side of the music business and that streaming royalties are woefully insufficient.”
An online campaign titled Broken Record is also taking shape. It has been co-created by Tom Gray of the Mercury prize-winning band Gomez, who is also a director of the Performing Rights Society, the body that sees to musicians’ payment from such sources as radio stations and the music played in pubs and hotels.
On Sunday 24 May, Broken Record will host an evening of the hugely popular Twitter listening parties run by Tim Burgess of the Charlatans, which will feature such names as Boy George, the cult US band the Shins, and the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter John Grant.
“Covid-19 happened and I was sitting there just thinking, ‘Live music has gone, and it’s going to be gone for a long time,’” says Gray.
“A big chunk of musicians’ money comes from hairdressers and bars and cafes that pay for music licences, but that’s now going to take a big hit. So the only type of income that’s available is from streaming. And I just thought, ‘If this isn’t a moment to do something about this, when is?’”
One of the big names on the running order for Broken Record’s Twitter listening party is the Scottish artist KT Tunstall. Around five weeks ago, she says she had an angry epiphany. “Online, everyone was clamouring to be entertained, and just expecting to get that for free,” she said.
“There was general feeling I was getting on social media: ‘You’re not gigging any more, you’re just sitting at home. So why not get on Facebook or Instagram and play for us?’ And I was like, ‘I tell you why I don’t want to do that – it’s because that’s how I make a living, and I’ve just lost 200 shows this year, and it’s completely decimated my income.’”
This year, she says, was set to be one of her busiest yet. How much money does she think she has lost? “Over a million quid.”
She means revenue, not profit – and because the margins of touring are so tight, any money she would have made would hardly equate to riches.
She then turns her attention to the streaming issue. “Labels and streaming platforms are mistakenly thinking they’re the product. And they’re not. The providers of the product are just getting completely screwed. ”
Spotify is reckoned to pay out an average of only £0.0028 (or 0.28p) per stream to so-called “rights holders”, a term that encompasses both massive record companies and artists who put out their own music. On YouTube, the per-stream rate is put at a mere £0.0012.
The lion’s share of streaming payouts goes to the three big major music corporations, Universal, Sony and Warner Music, who still largely base the way they reward artists on a system created when companies had to cover the costs of manufacturing records and CDs. Even in the age of streaming, these firms tend to keep most of the money generated by sales and streaming sites, making many artists’ livelihoods all the more fragile.
Songwriters are even in a more precarious position. One of the prime movers in both campaigns is Crispin Hunt, once the singer with the Britpop-era band the Longpigs and now a professional songwriter who has worked withEllie Goulding and Florence and the Machine, and the current chair of the Ivors Academy.
“I’ve been successful,” he says. “But the wolves are at the door, constantly.”
As an illustration, Hunt mentions his co-writing of Broken, a 2013 single by the British singer Jake Bugg that has amassed tens of millions of plays on YouTube. In the first two years after its release, he says, YouTube paid him £158. His last money from Spotify, he says, was centred on a Longpigs song titled On and On, a top 20 hit from 1996, which down the years has amassed nearly 3m plays. In the last three months, it notched up 25,000 UK plays, which netted him only £5.
The Musicians’ Union and Ivors Academy campaign is so far steering clear of any specific demands, aiming instead at raising awareness of a system they say is “broken”.
Hunt suggests one solution could be an equal four-way split of the streaming services’ revenues between the platforms themselves, record labels, songwriters and performers. Gray thinks part of the answer might lie in ensuring that some of people’s online music subscriptions – £9.99 a month for individuals, on both Spotify and Apple Music – is distributed to the artists they actually listen to.
One of the most unfair aspects of streaming, he says, is that everyone’s subscriptions go into one big pot, large amounts of which are channelled to the major labels and a handful of their hugely successful artists. So, however niche your tastes, a lot of your money inevitably goes to the likes of Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift.
In response,Spotifysaid: “The vast majority of revenue generated on Spotify is paid out to rights holders, including labels, publishing companies, and distributors … Spotify is helping fuel the growth of the music industry overall, which just experienced its fifth straight year of growth.”
A spokesperson for YouTube said the company pays the music industry “rates that are on par with the rest of the industry across both the advertising and subscription businesses”.
A statement from the BPI, the organisation that represents UK record labels including the three big corporates, insisted that “record labels are the leading investors in music to help artists achieve success”, but also sounded a note of sympathy with campaigning musicians: “The central issue remains the gulf between the value of music exploited by the large user-upload video platforms and the value they return to music creators … The platforms can do better; they just need to be held accountable.”