Inside the campaign to fix music’s streaming problem

It was, in many ways, a gleaming example of just how strong our love for music remains. Social media was taken over by statistics, a flurry of figures showing just how many millions of hours we’ve all spent listening to our favourite artists over the past year — whether it was the global megastars everyone knows, or the obscure artists we stumbled across on some left-field playlist.

And all those billions of streams have generated gargantuan sums of money. In 2020, UK record labels racked up £736.5m in streaming revenue — an increase of 15.4 per cent year on year — while in the third quarter of 2021, Spotify, the largest music streaming platform on the planet, reported revenues topping £2.1bn.

But how much of that money trickles down to the artists who actually make the music? “I sat down and worked it out a few months ago,” says Eliza Shaddad, a Sudanese-Scottish musician who has toured with the likes of Kae Tempest and Keane, and whose all-time streams on Spotify come to well over seven million. “For just one song, which had about 800,000 streams at the time, I think that over the two years since it came out, I’d seen about £2,000 of income for it.

“I feel in my life, it’s scrimping and saving and tightening budgets for everything, and in some ways, actually looking at £2,000 as a figure feels like, ‘Ok, great — that’s evidence of money coming in’,” she says. “But I think in the context of how many times it’s been played, and how much money has been made by that song, that amount of income, for me, barely covers the cost of making it.”

Shaddad adds that, as a “quite independent artist” who occasionally self-releases but mostly works “on fairly artist-friendly deals with small independent labels”, she is “generally in a kind of better place, I think, than a lot of artists that are signed to major labels in terms of the way it’s divvied up”.

The gaping disparities between musicians and labels made headlines last month, with the total amount of money made by every single UK songwriter in 2019 — some £150m, according to the Intellectual Property Office — being less than the chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, Sir Lucian Grainge, is set to make in 2021.

It’s an issue at the heart of a private members’ bill, led by Labour MP Kevin Brennan and featuring recommendations from a cross-party group of MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which is set to go before Parliament on Friday December 3. One of the major proposals is to amend UK copyright law so that equitable remuneration (ER) is applied to streaming.

First introduced in 1996, ER meant that whenever a song was played on radio or in a licensed premises, royalties were gathered at a standard rate by a collection society, PPL, who then handed the money directly to the musicians responsible — bypassing any record labels. “That was a lifeline,” says Horace Trubridge, general secretary of the Musicians’ Union (MU), which is backing the bill, alongside the Ivors Academy. “It saved the life of lots of musicians who would otherwise have just dumped their careers and gone off and done something else.”

But now, as the popularity of music radio wanes and streaming marches onwards, the idea is to replicate the system with music streaming platforms, from Spotify and Apple Music to YouTube. As it stands, the money artists make from streaming is dictated by agreements between the platforms and record labels or distributors — which often leaves artists with mere morsels of the streaming pie or, in some cases, nothing at all. ER, it’s suggested, would change that.

Word of ER’s possible arrival has caused no small amount of consternation amongst labels. Record industry trade group BPI decried the bill as “misguided, outdated regulation [that] would be damaging step backwards”, while the Association of Independent Music, which represents indie labels, said that while it is “open to reviewing and discussing [concerns over streaming] with all stakeholders to figure out the best way forward”, “legislating before this is reckless”.

“I’m not surprised at all,” says Trubridge in response to the backlash. “I mean, if you are making an absolute fortune out of something, you really don’t want anyone coming along and taking some of that away.” Still, Trubridge says the MU has had some constructive feedback from the industry — Spotify “understand where we’re coming from”, and he also namechecks BMG as “probably the most vocal of the labels” on the issue of streaming. “I think a lot of record company people realise that we’re at a sort of watershed moment, and something has to happen and change,” Trubridge adds. “But it won’t happen without legislation.”

Another issue to have reared its head is that of contracts signed in a largely pre-digital age, which are no longer fit for purpose in the time of streaming. It was a problem highlighted last month in a series of tweets posted by the prominent producer and DJ Four Tet, in reaction to his label Domino removing three albums from digital and streaming services, due to a dispute over the rates paid for streaming.

“I signed with Domino over 20 years ago, in a different time before streaming and downloads were something we thought about,” Four Tet, real name Kieran Hebden, wrote on the social media site, after confirming in earlier tweets that his case would be heard in court on January 18 next year.

He later added: “I believe there is an issue within the music industry on how the money is being shared out in the streaming era and I think it’s time for artists to be able to ask for a fairer deal.” The bill hopes to aid exactly that, offering artists the right to re-negotiate contracts that, in the context of modern music, no longer seem fair.

Hebden isn’t the only artist to have spoken out about streaming — in fact, the debate has been gaining momentum for years. Things have ranged from bursts of frustration — Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke called Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse” in 2013, and this week, Paul Weller branded the situation as “just a f***ing joke, an insult” — to orchestrated, high-profile campaigns. In April this year, Sir Paul McCartney, Kate Bush and Damon Albarn were among the musicians to sign an open letter to Boris Johnson, calling for equitable remuneration alongside “a regulator to ensure the lawful and fair treatment of music makers”.

What happens if the changes don’t come soon? “I think a lot of artists will have to stop, they’ll have to go under,” says Shaddad. “I think there’s already a narrowing in the music industry to people who can afford to do it, and that’s really sad.” Trubridge agrees: ““That’s what I worry about, that we’re not going to have that wonderful, broad rainbow of stuff we had before.”

Trubridge says he’s “50/50” on whether the Government will listen up and make the changes. “I’ve always seen this as a stepping stone, another brick in the wall,” he adds. “It’s just one more episode along the road of this campaign.”

But what the bill does do, he adds, is “raise the profile all the time of the campaign. We know we’ve got public support here, we know that we’ve got the support of major artists throughout the UK and throughout the world.”

That much, at least, is inspiring to an artist such as Shaddad. “I think it is emboldening for these kinds of artists, who are well established, to step forward and stay stuff about it — and then for MPs, and the MU and the Ivors [Academy] and everyone to be taking a stand on stuff.

“As an artist, it often feels like you’re in a position of powerlessness when it comes to the music industry. And I think it’s really exciting to see people stepping up.”

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