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Musicians deserve better remuneration or society will pay the price

Tom Gray argues that more must be done to remunerate musicians (Alamy)

7 min read

Music is now overwhelmingly consumed as a digital medium and payment for artists has suffered as a result. Tom Gray, Gomez founder member, composer and chair of the Ivors Academy, argues that more must be done to remunerate musicians – or society will pay a heavy price.

We are on a path that means we are slowly but surely losing our professional class of music maker. It will be beyond damaging to our society. Don’t we all want to live in a happier, healthier country?

This is not simply about the money around music: it’s about our collective mental health; it’s about the power of music to flatten barriers of background or ability; it’s about our towns and what brings us together, and above all, what ought to be a real responsibility to encourage, champion and support young and old people to participate in something which can change and enhance their lives. Ever present and ever neglected, music is a magic glue our fracturing communities need.

In December last year, George Freeman, then a minister at BEIS, pledged to “put feet to the fire and ask some hard questions about what they [the industry] are doing to make sure that we properly remunerate artists.” He made the pledge as the House debated Kevin Brennan’s bill to reform copyright.

When that debate happened, I’d been working for almost two years on the #BrokenRecord Campaign. We’d seen a ground-breaking parliamentary report on the Economics of Music Streaming which called for a “complete reset” of our industry.

“Given music as a tool, a young person can change their academic, health and life outcomes”

Now, as we approach the spring of 2023, are we any closer to Freeman’s “proper remuneration” of artists? Decidedly not. Since 2021, governments around the world have been introducing wide-ranging copyright reforms to help music-makers, but, here, where the global conversation was being led three years ago (with hundreds of the biggest names in music putting their names to my campaign to seek reform), we’ve barely moved an inch.

At the height of the campaign’s activity, the three major labels announced debt forgiveness on historic contracts, which was great news, but it now appears sometimes this forgiveness only comes if an artist agrees to waive other benefits.

A major step forward can come with some uncomfortable caveats. Even when debt is forgiven, a label may still only pay an artist a contractual royalty rate set at some point in the last century. Imagine you signed a deal in 1984 for five per cent – that’s what you still earn when your music is streamed today (unless you’re one of the lucky few successful enough to renegotiate). Each stream makes roughly a third of a penny for your label. That means a few hundredths of a penny in your pocket.

Setting fairness aside, is that appropriate in the 21st century? No matter when it was recorded, we need minimum royalty rates for music that is being listened to now. If it’s still relevant to our ears, our remuneration should be relevant to the here and now.

I must applaud the hard-working civil servants at the Intellectual Property Office who have, in earnest, been attempting to bring about some improvements for creators such as better data and transparency, but the truth is there are enormous elephants in the room. I’m not sure if the government is unwilling or unable to face down an intransigent and inequitable industry to improve British creators’ earnings, but if we don’t deal with remuneration and rights the whole process may yet prove to yield nothing.

Each stream makes roughly a third of a penny for your label.
Each online stream makes roughly a third of a penny for a musician's label (Alamy)

If this process goes nowhere, I’ll feel disappointed and frustrated for our excellent civil servants but I’ll feel much worse for British music-makers. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee’s recent follow-up to their excellent report on the Economics of Music Streaming was a breath of fresh air. It dealt with the nuts and bolts of keeping the industry and government engaged in the Intellectual Property Office’s process of reform, noting that remuneration needs to be back on the table.

Unlike some who appear to have misread the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) recent music industry report as a clean bill of health, they pointed out that the report noted “aspects of the music market had the potential to restrict competition to the detriment of artists and songwriters,” but that the CMA took no action because they “did not feel that competition interventions would effectively address the issues it identified”.

Which is to say, the CMA says there is a problem but it falls to government to sort it out. We have reason to hope that they will: Freeman, in a recent Westminster Hall debate, re-emphasised the government’s desire for fairness in remuneration. I’m truly grateful for that, but should he read this article, I’d like to address something of a misinterpretation of songwriters’ improving royalties put forward in the CMA report.

Market negotiation has played its part but, because streaming is a communication medium, we now have a valuable performing right on top of our old reproduction mechanical right. Things are fairer directly because of copyright law and, if the government has the will to reform, it has the potential to help much, much more.

Surprisingly, the committee also chose to go much further in their assessment of the government’s whole outlook to music and the cultural space we all inhabit. They outlined something I’ve spent a lot of time arguing for behind closed doors: a national strategy for music.

"No matter when it was recorded, we need minimum royalty rates for music that is being listened to now"

Available data states music helps kids with emotional regulation and as a result can play a vital role in reducing mental health interventions later in life (and helps them perform better academically). It is a powerful treatment for dementia. Music brings people together and makes them happy. Because you can create music out of thin air, create value from nothing, music has a vital, historic role as a vehicle of social mobility. Given music as a tool, a young person can change their academic, health and life outcomes. At the very least it can help to self-soothe or entertain. It bewilders me that something so jaw-droppingly positive in every imaginable way can be treated as a kind of “fringe” benefit.

You think something cannot be miraculous if it’s abundant and happens every day? Well, you’re wrong, and I say this without a hint of hyperbole, music is a bloody miracle and the British have a historic reputation for being bloody miraculous at it.

The DCMS Select Committee asked the government to look at the examples set by Korea and Canada. Far from a top-down, deadening effect, governments can open doors, bring support, investment and development to every part of communities – not just our industry. The opportunity is clear. We can make the UK a happier, more vibrant place to live and, alongside, a hugely better home to engage in the industry of music.

Embracing education and skills, communities and placemaking, higher education and industrial strategy, copyright and IP, competition law, exports: a national strategy would cross all departments: Culture, Business and Enterprise, Health and Social Care, Education and Housing, Communities and Local Government. Put simply, the UK should be the best place in the world for music in every sense. To achieve such an ambitious goal, we all need to “get it”.

We need cohesive planning with a shared vision. Tangible support and recognition of creators can be balanced with wide-ranging tax incentives and export support for the industry (Bewilderingly, unlike many countries we don’t even have a music export office). We can stop the United Kingdom from resigning itself to diminishing global reputation, market share and accompanying soft power, and instead make sure it is a catalyst for brilliant creativity and careers across our cities and regions, lasting long into the future.

And, of course, cheer everyone up (God knows we all need it).

Tom Gray is Chair of the Ivors Academy and a founding member of UK indie rock band Gomez.

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