SING A SONG OF SIXPENCE

In the mid-1960s, pop musicians were laying an abundance of golden eggs for grateful record companies, promoters, managers and merchandisers and getting very little in return. And even if the biggest earners in the business had a better time of it on paper than the opening act for Freddie and the Dreamers, the Wilson Government’s very own superhero, Taxman, was taking nineteen shillings from every twenty made. Pre-60s entertainers hadn’t made much money from record sales either; back then, performers had earned their livings by performing, whilst the majority of the royalties from a big-seller went to the professional songwriters who penned it; and in the era of the Standard, a dozen different singers could sell millions of copies of the same song, further boosting the income of the composer as opposed to the performer. With the rise of the writer/performer in the wake of The Beatles, the additional compositional income helped a little, but the contracts the bands were locked into weren’t that different from the kinds of tied land/cottage deals endured by centuries of agricultural labourers.

Having lost a fortune courtesy of Brian Epstein’s business naivety, The Beatles attempted to break the stranglehold others had over their accumulated earnings by forming the Apple organisation in 1968; but their reluctance to involve anyone with genuine financial acumen left the shambolic field clear for Allen Klein, the archetypal showbiz shyster, to eventually steam in and pocket the pieces; he’d already shafted the Stones, after all. It wasn’t until the arrival of Led Zeppelin and their visionary manager Peter Grant at the end of the 60s that bands began to earn the kind of big bucks that would set them up for life. At the same time as Led Zep were flying around the world on their private jet, Stevie Wonder was turning 21 and renegotiating his contract with Motown, gaining an unprecedented degree of control over his recorded output. However, the rise of the powerful artist in command of his or her destiny didn’t end the traditional factory farm system, with the likes of The Bay City Rollers being royally ripped-off by their manager, the notorious Tam Paton. The exploitation of youth – both performer and audience – still constituted a hefty chunk of the music industry’s business plan.

The phenomenal record sales of the 70s and 80s paid for many a Rolls Royce, country estate and penthouse suite, but the boom dramatically turned to bust with the advent of Napster and file-sharing at the very end of the 20th century. Home taping may not have killed music, but free illegal downloading certainly killed the old music industry – and denied any rising star the prospect of following in the footsteps of their millionaire predecessors. With falling record sales and the increasing irrelevance of the singles chart, contemporary acts reverted to the bread-and-butter of their 50s ancestors by hitting the road. The astronomical rise in the price of tickets for big gigs thereafter became the main way an artist could at least make a decent living from music, whilst the place of recorded income was taken by the industry cornering the streaming market, belatedly latching onto the fact it was the one remaining area they could recoup some of the billions they lost when physical sales began to plummet.

The conglomerates that gobbled up the old record companies – Universal, Sony and Warner – today own the vast majority of popular music people want to hear and can make on average a good $20 million a day from streaming; whatever crumbs are left (13% of an estimated annual £1bn in the UK alone) go to lesser-known, independent artists, and as streaming sites lean towards acts that have a proven track record of success, the marginalisation of new artists trying to make headway is inevitable. The little they earn from streaming leaves them no better off than the 60s acts making a pittance from record sales due to the miserly contracts they signed. But at least there was always touring to depend on for paying the rent, even if the number of small venues for up-and-coming acts is a pale shadow of the circuit there used to be 30 or 40 years ago. Alas, even that hit a brick wall this year thanks to a certain virus. 2020 has seen the one lifeline most musicians who aren’t Ed Sheeran or Adele had as their main income completely wiped out. Sure, those who enjoy live music are being deprived in lockdown land, but if performing is what you do, what do you do when there’s nowhere to perform anymore? Chances are relying on streaming isn’t the answer.

Streaming royalties don’t work the same way as radio airplay; at a time when more are accessing the likes of BBC Sounds to tune into playlists whenever they feel like it, most are probably unaware (or don’t care) that the artist’s royalty payment for featuring on the BBC Sounds app goes direct to the artist’s label rather than the artist. This is because of a legal loophole whereby the broadcast is regarded as ‘interactive’ and therefore not subject to the older, fairer system; it empowers the labels further, turning them into an old-fashioned housewife in charge of her husband’s wage-packet and dispensing the contents as she sees fit. There is no cast-iron guarantee the artist will receive any kind of substantial payment for the privilege of being included in such a playlist, and with the lifeblood of the live performance suddenly removed from the picture, many musicians are struggling. This week, ‘Private Eye’ gives the example of classical violinist Tasmin Little, receiving 5m Spotify streamings of her work over six months and earning the princely sum of…£12. Both the Performing Rights Society and the Musicians Union are making the right sounds, but they may as well be Oliver Twist requesting an extra bowl of gruel.

Last week, a group of concerned musicians – including Ed O’Brien of Radiohead and Guy Garvey of Elbow – gave evidence to a Commons Select Committee of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; also present was Nadine Shah, a singer-songwriter belonging to a younger, more vulnerable musical generation. As she herself made clear, many less-established acts still on their way up are reluctant to speak out against the unfairness of streaming for fear of being blacklisted by the all-powerful streaming sites; at such a perilous time for musicians, one can understand their fears. The musicians appearing at the DCMS inquiry into the streaming business put forward the suggestion that artists be granted rights by Government to earn a decent percentage from streaming of the kind they would be legally entitled to from radio and TV airplay. Bands such as Radiohead and Elbow were amongst the last wave of acts who were able to build their careers in the pre-streaming age and are, I would imagine, relatively secure in financial terms; the same cannot be said of those at the mercy of the streaming overlords when they have no past royalties to fall back on.

I know myself that the publishing industry is notoriously stingy when it comes to royalty payments, and the music biz is no better. There was a brief window of around 30 years – between, say, the release of Led Zeppelin’s first album and Oasis’s third – when a small fortune could be made by artist as well as record company should an act capture the public imagination; but those that came before the window was open and those who came after it was closed tell a different story. Of course, no musician has a divine right to end up as a member of the landed gentry; but many wouldn’t want that, anyway. Some just want to be able to earn enough not to have to worry about the bailiffs on the doorstep. Most were just about managing before lockdown curtailed the live scene overnight; now they’ve no choice but to rely on a system that treats them as effective serfs, just like the system that existed before all those golden eggs started to be laid back in the 60s. Who knew that the brave new world of ‘digital content’ would end up taking us full circle?

© The Editor

8 thoughts on “SING A SONG OF SIXPENCE

  1. It is, of course, the harsh realities of the market-place, where any product can only raise an amount which current customers are prepared to pay and, between the producer and consumer, there will usually be various layers of handlers, some parasites, feathering their own nests from the process.

    No-one ever forces artistes to sign disadvantageous contracts, they sign them because they figure that contract is the best they can achieve in the current market for their particular offering. And if the revenue from selling their offering is not enough to fund their desired lifestyle, then it’s time to find another way of making money or get a better contract next time.

    Harsh perhaps, but deliverers of artistic services have no greater reason to expect subsidy or sympathy than would a hairdresser, a shoe-repairer or a decorator, they all provide their own skills into a market-place and accept the results of how their offering is valued and traded.

    Times change, the switch from physical entertainment media to electronic has certainly expanded the market volume but, in consequence, has also changed the cash-flows for the players. But such change is normal: a century ago almost every small settlement had a blacksmith, a skill then much appreciated as a necessary enabler for the principle transport of the time – then the motor-car came along, the market-place changed and the smarter blacksmiths adapted to become car mechanics, but most faded away. Change or die, the market mantra.

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    1. I guess the real predicament for musicians at the moment – and I include all musical genres – is the abrupt removal of the live arena that has become the prime source of income in recent years. Of course, this places them on a level pegging with all the rest denied a workplace this year and they have to deal with the dilemma in the same way millions of others have had to in 2020. The pandemic clearly won’t have much impact on the Rod Stewarts or Bonos of this world beyond having to cancel a few stadium residencies, but they represent a tiny minority of the thousands who make a living from playing music, after all. The streaming business is something younger musicians have essentially grown up with in the way past generations were raised on the likes of TOTP and the music press, so it’s certainly something they’re equipped to use as a platform, and do; but they are being shafted on an outrageous scale by the providers of these services and I think it does need to be addressed.

      I suspect my feelings on this also relate to my own personal ‘tech’ experience. For example, all my YT videos were demonetised a couple of years ago, and though I must receive two dozen appreciative (and much-appreciated) comments a week on any given video – and the viewing figures steadily remain fantastic by anyone’s standards – I no longer make a penny from any of them whilst YT continues to profit from the content they deemed too beyond the pale to pay me for. I’m not griping about it; I accept this is the way it is re this particular market, but I do know where the musicians are coming from.

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      1. It’s not just musicians or YT video producers who get trampled by changes in technology, consider the fate of gag-writers. A hundred years ago, one decent script of gags could be pedalled around the music-halls and theatres for 25 years – then radio/TV came along and a gag became a single-use product to be enjoyed by millions in one sitting. Although earnings per gag could improve, the shelf-life was so limited that they had to work so much harder to keep making a living by continually writing new material.

        And in the new market-place, so long as YT can get content without paying, it will – if the free content dries up, it either has to start paying for it or die, it’s a simple business decision. I genuinely sympathise with artistes of all stripes trying to earn recompense for their creativity, but no more than I sympathise with good hairdressers, show-repairers or decorators struggling to earn from their own ‘art’, but it’s the world we live in. A one-trick-pony whose trick becomes unrewarded has to learn a new trick or starve.

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      2. I suppose there are parallels with what you say of the old gag-writers and the point I make about the old songwriters who could reap the rewards of penning a standard covered by a dozen different popular performers back in the day. When I was putting a series of easy listening CDs together a few months back, I ended up going through the Great American Songbook and basically picking whichever I thought was the best version of each song – not easy when the callibre of the singers was so high and each brought something distinctively brilliant to their respective renditions. The coming of The Beatles must have put so many Tin Pan Alley noses out of joint, but as you say, gotta move with the times.

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      3. “The streaming business is something younger musicians have essentially grown up with in the way past generations were raised on the likes of TOTP and the music press, so it’s certainly something they’re equipped to use as a platform, and do; but they are being shafted on an outrageous scale by the providers of these services and I think it does need to be addressed.”

        Agreed.

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    2. “It is, of course, the harsh realities of the market-place, where any product can only raise an amount which current customers are prepared to pay and, between the producer and consumer, there will usually be various layers of handlers, some parasites, feathering their own nests from the process.”

      You seem to forget that in civilised societies, markets exist by virtue of varying degrees of government regulation. Think of – granted an extreme example – the tobacco industry, which has suffered plummeting revenues – at least in the West – due to government regulations and restrictions.

      I’m not necessarily saying that I approve of the creative industries being treated more favourably by, for example, Mr Taxman, just because they are deemed to be creative/artistic. But let’s not pretend there is currently a level playing field in operation for the struggling singer-songwriter in a bedsit against the internet giants. There really isn’t. Neither is there a level playing field for the tax payer against the internet giants. They’re screwing us, basically, and citizens have a legitimate right to expect that governments belatedly put manners on them. If that makes me sound like a raving commie compared to you, so be it.

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      1. Spotify boss Daniel Elk comes across as the Philip Green of the music biz in the Private Eye article, suggesting ‘if musicians are poor, it’s because they’re lazy’. Spotify’s income as of last June was given as 1.89bn euros.

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      2. There’s some ‘raving commie’ in all of us, but then reality strikes. When the trusty local corner-shop finds a Tesco Express opening three doors away, that’s always going to be an un-level playing-field: Tesco’s deep pockets can take a loss until the old-timer gives in, then Tesco milks the local market thereafter, that’s the world we live in.

        But that doesn’t excuse governments allowing multi-national tech-based giants to abuse markets and evade legitimate tax obligatiions, at that level I’m a ‘raving commie’ too.

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