Music streaming

Can a British MP ‘fix’ music streaming?

When Kevin Brennan became Labor MP for Cardiff West in 2001, the music industry was a very different beast from today. Online file-sharing service Napster had threatened to monetize recorded music, and the industry was “in danger of collapsing”, Brennan said. Then paid download services – mainly iTunes – became popular and “partly solved” the situation. “It at least allowed for a reasonable payback to monetize the music.”

Now, the dominance of music streaming has torn that concept to shreds. A single Spotify stream would be valued at less than $0.004, a figure an artist could see a share of if they recouped on their recording contract. Meanwhile, the streaming platform is valued at $54 billion. “The industry hasn’t done what it should have done to make sure the people who are responsible for all this wonderful production get a decent share of the wealth,” Brennan said.

This is the central premise of a new copyright bill, proposed by Brennan, which receives its second reading in the House of Commons today (December 3). Brennan, who was born in Cwmbran, South Wales, in 1959, spoke on Zoom in late November from his home in Cardiff. A guitar hung on the wall next to him. He was a music fan long before he became active in politics, he said. As a teenager, he played guitar and wrote songs, performing in bands and folk clubs with his sister. Her love of music continued: Brennan released her debut album, The Clown and the Cigarette Girl, in October 2021, becoming the first sitting MP to release a solo record.

Brennan isn’t asking music fans to boycott streaming services. He subscribes to Spotify himself and feels no guilt, although he acknowledges what a “small sum” of £9.99 a month is to access almost all the music ever recorded. “You can’t uninvent the technology,” he said of his attempt to change UK law rather than deal directly with streaming platforms. “You just need to make it work in a way that will benefit those who are the foundation of this whole industry – the creators.”

Brennan has held cabinet and shadow cabinet positions for education and business. In this parliament, he focuses on the work of select committees, somewhere where he thinks he can be “a little more efficient”. The findings of an all-party select committee inquiry into the music streaming economy, which was launched in October 2020, are the basis of Brennan’s private member’s bill.

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First on the agenda, a call for “fair compensation” to be applied to music streaming. The term is used to describe the method by which artists and songwriters receive royalties for radio plays and other public broadcasts. That comparison makes sense, Brennan said, because Spotify has always been clear about its desire to replace traditional radio.

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As part of equitable compensation, the song’s copyright holder (usually the record company) splits the royalties with the performers 50/50. (Currently, the average artist’s share of streaming royalties is around 16%.) Notably, this revenue share would be paid directly by a digital service provider (such as Spotify) to an entity that distributes money directly to artists, bypassing labels. “I don’t think anyone is claiming that this is going to make a lot of people rich,” Brennan said. “But what that would mean is that artists would have a sum they would be entitled to under the law. It adds a bit of fairness. An equivalent law has already been applied to streaming in other countries such as Spain.

The bill also proposes that artists have the right to get their music back after 20 years, “if the record company doesn’t do anything with it, or if they’re not happy with the deal,” Brennan explained. He cited Kieran Hebden, who publishes electronic music under the name Four Tet, and who has taken legal action against his former label, Domino, over its royalty rate for streaming and downloads. The contract in question was signed in 2001, well before Spotify launched in 2008 – and therefore does not include an agreement for streaming royalties. In November, Domino pulled the three Four Tet albums that fall under that deal from all streaming platforms, saying he was advised to do so for legal reasons and in doing so to withhold Hebden’s revenue, as well than himself. Brennan’s proposal would free artists from holding their music under such antiquated deals against their will.

As he left Westminster on November 24, Brennan was greeted by a group of musicians singing a rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in support of the “streaming fix” bill. Among the group was Tom Gray, member of the Gomez group and founder of the #BrokenRecord campaign; musician and producer Crispin Hunt, who spearheaded the campaign on Twitter; and representatives of the Union of Musicians. The bill also has the support of the Ivors Academy – the professional association for songwriters, named after Ivor Novello, who, “just by a small coincidence,” Brennan said, “was born in my constituency. There’s even a blue plaque to mark his birthplace.

But the bill was not well received across the industry. Its intention is to generate “additional revenue for artists and songwriters,” Brennan said; labels will be responsible for paying fair compensation. In a statement, the UK Phonographic Industry said the bill “completely misunderstands today’s music industry and the value labels bring to finding and nurturing talent”. The Association of Independent Music said it believes “the approach to streaming should be data first, discussion second and law last… Legislating before that is unwise”.

“Part of the industry is trying to say that the reforms I’m proposing are outdated,” Brennan said, “but this is a modernization proposal.” At the heart of the bill is an understanding that the music industry is adapting to keep up with technological development, along with contracts, wages and legislation. “Music is changing but we need to make sure the key principle is respected: artists should not be forgotten.”

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