Live4ever’s Interview With Crispin Hunt, Part 2: Streaming, royalties and the #BrokenRecord campaign

By Live4ever - Posted on 08 May 2020 at 7:00am

Crispin Hunt

There are many bitter ironies about this new world we inhabit after COVID-19 entered our lives.

The saddest of all is, of course, that those best placed to treat the virus are those that have the greatest exposure to it, our NHS staff and care workers bravely soldier on (if you’ll forgive the disingenuous war analogy one more time), doing their best, which is all any of us can ask.

Further down musicians are, perhaps unsurprisingly, showing themselves to be increasingly creative. Live-streams on Instagram and Facebook were already commonplace, but in the last two months the rise in this content has been meteoric. The sight of artists in their own homes (fortunately not against a backdrop of educational tomes) has already become the most familiar one of 2020. This fascination surely peaked during the Global Citizen ‘gig’ as Elton John inadvertently provided memes for the rest of the year whilst The Rolling Stones, always the savviest cats in the game, decided that 50% of the band performing would suffice.

Every night Tim Burgess hosts listening parties on Twitter, Noel Gallagher and The Libertines (among others) are taking the opportunity to clear out their cupboards, releasing treats in the form of demos or live recordings. Radiohead have taken things even further, putting entire gigs from their career on YouTube.

For the Jaggers and the Gallaghers of this world, these are little more than (appreciated) gestures of good will. For those further down the food chain still, the situation is much more severe. Their main source of revenue has simply stopped, with no clarity as to when, or in some cases if, it will resume. An ever-evolving beast, the music industry has long been financed by live performances. Gone are the days when an artist or band could get by on record sales alone.

Despite the rebirth of vinyl, sales of the physical music product have fallen through the floor because of streaming services. For £10 per month or less, the consumer has access to virtually the entire recorded history of music. Unfortunately, owing to the antiquated contracts recording artists are bound to, the creators receive negligible financial reward in return.

Via Spotify, the market leader, an artist can expect to receive £0.0004 per stream. It takes 2,500 streams for them to earn £1 – figures, whilst more lucrative, that are comparable across the various streaming services. In early, April Tom Gray, a director of PRS, tweeted some comments and stats outlining this very problem. In summary, even before the pandemic, musicians were in trouble. Gray’s tweets made over a million impressions and has transformed a conversation into an awareness campaign: #BrokenRecord.

Crispin Hunt, now Chair of the British Academy Of Songwriters, Composers And Authors, knows better than most about the dire straits the industry is in. A long-time advocate of parity for songwriters, Hunt knows immediate action is required.

“We really need to address this, it’s urgent,” he tells Live4ever. “It’s been on the agenda for a very long time, but I think now that people are really struggling to make rent yet are selling millions of streams we need to start asking questions. What’s clear – and has been exposed by the lockdown – is that musicians can no longer continue to subsidise the music industry with their earnings from live performances. Live is great, but it’s a separate issue. By musicians I mean songwriters, session musicians, performers, artists, producers – they should be able to sustain themselves on recorded music, because recorded music is now making an awful lot of money.”

A lot of money indeed, but the record labels weren’t so slow to react when streaming started to establish itself as a force in music consumption. “The labels did the sensible thing when Spotify first turned up,” Hunt explains. “Whenever a new platform turns up, they say, ‘you can have our catalogue licence, but we want 5% of your company too’, so they all had varying small percentages of Spotify. In my understanding, the cost of those shares was originally something around £200,000, which is the price of a half-decent artist to a major label. They sold part of their shares recently for many tens of millions of pounds. They’ve done very well out of it.”

This may conjure up images of Machiavellian record labels as ruthless corporate pigs, quaffing brandies and smoking cigars, caring only about lining their pockets, but the reality is, as ever, more complex: “The people who run the large labels are forced to answer to these shareholders and large hedge funds, so they can’t behave in a way that suits the business they’re in, which is art,” Hunt says. “They’re forced to make decisions which aren’t artistic, but commercial ones. Music has suffered for that.”

This hasn’t stopped streaming services adapting their offerings: all streaming services offer playlists that are designed to appeal specifically to the user. This may appear to be an act of kindness, in fact it’s nothing so altruistic. It’s all part of the game, and it’s not just the artists that are losing out. The curation model that streaming services use is having a detrimental effect on radio: not bound by having to cater to a specific audience (on a grander scale), record labels approach the streaming sites first, which in turn reduces the requirement for radio stations.

Hunt elaborates for Live4ever: “They (streaming services) compete on curation, but that means that their behaviour becomes less like a shop and more like a broadcaster. The law is questionable about whether streaming is…it’s all defined as a sale. It pays as if it’s a sale, so it goes to the record company and then they pay via contract. But really, if you go on to Spotify and say, ‘I want to listen to Arctic Monkeys’, that’s a sale. You’re going into a shop and choosing something. But if Spotify plays you something by Arctic Monkeys as part of their early morning playlist that’s a broadcast, and it should pay like a broadcast.”

Further muddying the waters is the legislation for YouTube. A few exceptions aside, you may have noticed those acts performing online recently have been doing so on Instagram and Facebook. Whilst the instant access and interaction for fans is undoubtedly the primary reason, there are also complexities over remuneration from the video giant. Like streaming, the original contracts are now somewhat archaic, as Hunt explains to Live4ever:

“When WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organisation) gave rights and broadcasts to performers, so that the players get paid when their music is on radio, there was a big argument whether it should include audio-visual works, i.e. films and TV shows. That was considered a step too far. They did a deal that said they would give musicians some money from broadcast (radio) but not from TV, where music is trapped inside a piece of video. Of course, nowadays everything is audio-visual, and on Facebook and YouTube.”

In a nutshell, artists (of all shapes and sizes) get even less money from YouTube than they do from streaming services, yet YouTube is free for the consumer and will therefore be more readily utilised. Once again, the lockdown has brought this further under the microscope. “The streaming services are all competing with each other, and the trouble is they’re all competing with YouTube, which is free,” Hunt says. “Until YouTube pays properly, they will all say, ‘until YouTube start paying properly, we can’t get people to pay £12.50!’. In addition, as the audio-visual model is becoming more catered to streaming, the creators don’t receive remuneration for their work being played on BBC iPlayer. If you’re watching Eastenders online, whoever is on the Queen Vic radio won’t be receiving payment as you watch.”

The further you delve into all this, the bleaker it becomes. But there is hope: last week, the Beijing Treaty was enacted by over 30 countries. The treaty grants performers economic rights for audiovisual fixations, i.e. performances on YouTube. It still needs to be ratified, which will take time, but presuming that takes place it will level the playing field. It may also encourage streaming services to adapt accordingly. The market is competitive, but none of the platforms have adjusted their prices in the last few years for fear of driving consumers away.

“There’s two ways of dealing with it,” Crispin believes. “One is that you rejig how the music gets divided – the ten quid that gets divided at the moment goes: £3 Spotify, £1.20 to the songwriters and the rest to the record labels. I think, personally, that it needs to go four ways: 25% to the platform, 25% to the song, 25% to the singers and 25% needs to go the sellers. The other answer is to raise the price. You either divide the money fairly so that it’s more proportional, or you raise the price.”

Consumers may baulk at a price rise, but a slight increase in the price of access to virtually every piece of recorded music in history will ensure that the scope and breadth of what is available doesn’t run out. “Interesting fringes and new music used to survive because people got into it and they bought it,” Crispin continues. “That nourished whatever the genre was so it could grow. That’s exactly what happened to hip-hop/R&B, which is now the dominant pop format. I don’t think the ‘new’ hip-hop/R&B would get the oxygen to succeed under the current structure. At the moment, no matter how great and popular you are, you’re kept submerged under the surface because the winners take all. It’s a zero-sum game by design.”

“Streaming services will say, ‘you’ve got to put it in perspective, you’ve had a million streams’. If it was one play to 20 million people on radio, you’d only earn twenty quid, whereas with us you’d earn fifty quid. But a million streams is a million people choosing to listen to your music, you’ve got to be able to buy a weekly shop on that. The income from live should be complementary to what you make for your recordings. It’s not an advert for your gig.”

“Everything online is distribution now. There’s no such thing as promotion, apart from the music itself because it’s really popular, and everybody else is making a lot of money from it, like YouTube and Google and the major labels. I think that money needs to go back to the people who make it.”

It may seem immaterial in the greater scheme of things, but as hard as it is to believe right now, life will go on. Yet with large gatherings off the agenda for the foreseeable future, music fans are going to need the creators more than ever. The time for change is now. These changes don’t need to be wholesale but as a starting point, Hunt is adamant: “Streaming needs to be reconfigured. It needs not to be paying as it did via contracts that are still, basically, based on pieces of vinyl. We need to completely rethink how the money that is driven by musicians gets back to musicians. This will, of course, affect the industry, but it will affect it positively, as it means there’s a flourishing and holistic future for music.”

“We should all be able to benefit from the fantastic advantages of online. That was what was promised, but we’re now at the point where we have to make sure those promises are kept. What concerns me is that the people who make all of the brilliant stuff that we all enjoy, and which nourishes our lives, just aren’t getting a fair share of the money generated by the stuff they create. It’s the same for all creatives. We need to re-balance that for the sake of society.”

“There are so many questions being asked about what the new normal will be when we’re out of lockdown. It cannot go back to the bad old days.”

Richard Bowes

In the first part of our interview, Crispin told us all about the reissue of Longpigs’ debut album The Sun Is Often Out. Check it out right here.

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