A once in a generation opportunity to deliver a fairer music business…

Back in July, the call issued by cross-party MPs on the DCMS Select Committee, demanding a “complete reset” of music streaming, marked a hugely important staging post for anyone and everyone who advocates for artist and creator rights.

Here was a group of highly respected Parliamentarians, who’d received hundreds of written submissions on the subject, who’d weighed up evidence and counter evidence, and grilled a succession of artists, songwriters, managers, record label bosses and digital music services before producing a substantive 118-page report — complete with an equally comprehensive list of recommendations.

Fuelled by high profile campaigning from fellow members of the Council of Music Makers, and the #BrokenRecord and Keep Music Alive initiatives, the debate around streaming has broken into the mainstream and become headline news. In itself, this is an incredible achievement.

However, if the Committee’s landmark report represented a watershed, then the Government’s response to its contents, expected before the end of this month, is even more vital. This should provide us with far greater clarity about the direction of travel, and whether some of the much-needed legislative changes raised by the Committee are likely to be implemented by the Government.

Throughout this process, which has occurred in the context of a pandemic that has crippled the majority of artists’ livelihoods, and amidst the continued and ongoing uncertainties of Brexit, the FAC has attempted to balance an urge to support with an urge to challenge. So while encouraging industry reforms towards meaningful change and an overhaul of outdated contractual and licensing practices, we’re also pushing for legislation to future-proof the position of artists and music makers, rebalancing their interests in a market increasingly dominated by large, global corporations.

Between the headlines there’s a host of differing perspectives here — even within the FAC membership. A featured artist locked into an unrecouped life-of-copyright deal from the analogue era will undoubtedly hold strong viewpoints as to how streaming should be “fixed”; whereas one who owns their own copyrights or releases via a label services-type deal might feel there is much about streaming that should be left well alone.

In other words, there are unlikely to be silver bullet solutions. We need to take all sides with us.

However, some fruit does hang lower than others. For instance, for record labels to update legacy royalty rates and make them fit for purpose in the streaming age, or to write off unrecouped balances after a predefined period, these are not unreasonable or unworkable requests. Similarly, for collecting societies to change how they redistribute streaming black box royalties and end the practice of apportioning such revenues by ‘market share’. Such straightforward actions feel to me like inevitable and long overdue steps towards fairness and a better functioning market.

On the basis of forward-thinking approaches by companies including Beggars Group, BMG and Sony, they already appear attainable. With a little more imagination, and if the collective and political will is there, it feels we can go much further down this road and much faster.

For other areas of proposed reform, where there is less consensus, a more rigorous, analytical and evidence-led approach will inevitably be required. For instance, around the differing models of equitable remuneration (ER) or user-centric licensing. It’s not that these subjects should not be explored — they absolutely must be — but their application and impact will require guarantees that new and upcoming artists do not suffer unforeseen consequences.

In terms of legislation, there is a whole raft of changes that the FAC supports — including the introduction of a contract adjustment right into UK copyright law, and limits on the length of time that a record label or “rights owner” can legally control an artist’s work.

Such interventions would not, I believe, curb market growth. They would speed up progress. and set new standards — making the UK the best place for artists to live and work, and instilling greater competition around transparency and ethics.

In a similar vein, and using the European Copyright Directive as a template, there should be greater pressure on music publishers and collecting societies to provide full disclosure about royalty chains and data conflicts — helping speed up the flow of revenues to songwriters and ensure that those who create and make music can make fully informed decisions about the use of their work. In theory, streaming should have increased songwriters’ overall share of revenue (they receive 15% on a stream, compared to 8% from a physical sale) yet a vocal cohort are clearly failing to see a benefit.

In order to provide greater clarity around these issues, this week the FAC have joined with the Music Managers Forum in publishing a White Paper — collating and breaking down the key recommendations made by the DCMS Select Committee, and outlining what we feel are the best approaches to resolving them.

Incorporating years of extensive research from the MMF’s Dissecting The Digital Dollar initiative, we intend this to be a meaningful and helpful addition to a debate that still represents a once in a generation opportunity to deliver a fairer and more equitable music business.

Certainly, a key point we’ve been making to Government is the urgency for the Department for Culture Media & Sport and the Intellectual Property Office to pick up from the Select Committee’s momentum and convene a regular Ministerial roundtable. This should involve constituents from across the music industry, and with the express purpose of keeping reform on the agenda and openly tracking its progress and implementation.

It’s important that we keep the pressure up here. The time for talking and “recommendations” is coming to a close. The minute that the Government publishes its responses, is the minute that action must begin.

CEO of the Featured Artists Coalition. The FAC is the UK trade body that represents the rights and interests of music artists.