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The Brennan Bill to fix musicians’ streaming remuneration fails at second reading – but the fight continues

"I will continue to push for legislative solutions to make sure that music makers in the UK receive a fairer share of streaming revenues,” says MP Kevin Brennan.

Kojo kwarteng y jrj UKY Osc unsplash

Spotify pays about 0.28p per stream to rights holders.

Kojo Kwarteng on Unsplash.

Earlier this month, Labour MP Kevin Brennan introduced a Private Members’ Bill in Parliament proposing reforms to the way musicians are paid by streaming services like Spotify. The bill was the result of fact-finding interviews undertaken by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, which Brennan sits on, and which highlighted the current inequitable distribution of revenue.

Objections to the bill had already been raised by UK industry bodies such as AIM and the BPI, who said the bill would undermine the "essential investment that labels provide, harming new talent and the long-term competitiveness of British music.”

Sadly the bill was not passed, and it is unlikely – in the short term at least – to make further progress. But the setback hasn't dented Brennan's commitment to ensure streaming revenues are fairly distributed, giving professional musicians a decent income.

Why is it so important? On the face of it, the streaming model is simple. Artists create music, record labels provide the infrastructure to publish the work, and streaming services act as the 21st century outlet for that creativity to be heard. Everyone involved takes a fair share of the profit generated by advertising and by consumers paying subscription fees to streaming services.

A fair model, right? Wrong.

A recent report quoted by the Musicians’ Union sums up the plight of musicians and songwriters succinctly. It states that Sir Lucian Grainge, CEO of Universal Music Group earned more in 2021 – over £150m – than the total combined royalties generated by UK streaming, sales and downloads for all songwriters, composers and lyricists in 2019.

The facts make for shocking reading. Spotify is estimated to pay about £0.0028 (or 0.28p) per stream to "rights holders", a definition that includes both record company behemoths and artists who put out their own music. On YouTube the per-stream rate is worse, a mere £0.0012p.

When coupled with restricted touring due to Covid and Brexit, thousands of musicians are either in debt to their record labels or simply can’t afford to tour. The Musicians’ Union estimate that 70% of its members are unable to do more than 25% of their pre-pandemic work and that 87% of musicians will earn less than £20,000 this year. As Elbow’s Guy Garvey put it, "Musicians can't eat, they can't make the rent. We need to make the system better".

What could address this inequitable situation and why was the ‘Brennan Bill’ so important? To understand that we need to go back 14 months to November 2020. Garvey, as well as Radiohead's Ed O'Brien and Nadine Shah, gave evidence to the DCMS Select Committee as MPs examined the economic impact of streaming on artists, record labels and the music industry as a whole.

"The three major labels are bragging about record profits while thousands of musicians are seeing virtually nothing coming back to them,” Shah told the Guardian. “We need a fairer system in place. We need more transparency. Surely we can find a way to make streaming work for all of us."

The financial reality is that over £1 billion in revenue was generated from 114 billion music streams in the UK in 2020. But despite this level of income, artists can be paid as little as 13% of that total.

In November 2020 Brennan published his proposed bill, backed by the Musicians' Union and The Ivors Academy. Its purpose was to change the law to make sure "performers and composers are properly remunerated, by placing the treatment of revenue gained from music streaming services on a common footing with the treatment of revenue gained from other sources.”

Influential trade body the BPI opposed the bill, saying it would "bind British music in red tape, reduce income for the most entrepreneurial artists and stifle investment and innovation by record labels". While it's correct that there is little benefit for smaller artists, this viewpoint doesn't take into account the huge impact the lack of streaming revenue is having on the UK’s 30,000 professional musicians. Unless you happen to have extensive private funds, there may not be a viable music industry left to aspire to be part of if streaming revenues remain as low as they are now.

So given the bill’s failure in Parliament, what comes next for campaigners?

"My interest is not to pursue a party political battle, but to work across the House and the [music] sector with anyone who is interested in achieving better remuneration for musicians, songwriters and composers in the exciting new era of music streaming,” said Brennan.

"Although the government has chosen not to back my bill today which would bring copyright law up-to-date and reform music streaming to the benefit of UK musicians, I am pleased that it has not ruled out legislation and is committed to a programme of research into the issues raised."

Brennan's argument also has the weight of precedent. The European Union has already addressed the issue of streaming revenues, resulting in fairer shares for European artists. "Equitable remuneration for performers is already in effect, or currently being implemented in territories across Europe, while British creators continue to struggle financially", says Brennan.

The Cardiff West MP’s continued push for reform is supported by the Musicians' Union, The Ivors Academy and Gomez’s Tom Gray, among others. The latest battle may have been lost but the war is still there to be won. The fight continues.

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