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BPI and MU comment after talks over a new session musician agreement stall

By | Published on Friday 9 June 2023


Record label trade body BPI and the Musicians’ Union have both issued statements about recent negotiations to amend the UK record industry’s session musician agreement, which recently stalled.

Former BPI boss Geoff Taylor confirmed that those negotiations were ongoing at a hearing of the culture select committee in the UK Parliament last year. That hearing was reviewing the government-led work that was initiated following the committee’s inquiry into the economics of music streaming.

Music-maker groups told MPs that this work needed to focus more specifically on artist and songwriter remuneration. Whereas working groups had been set up to discuss issues around data and transparency, no such committee had been convened to talk about how music-makers share in streaming income, which for artist and songwriter groups is the biggest issue of them all.

Presenting the label perspective to MPs, Taylor insisted that changes had already been made within the industry to address issues around artist remuneration. Artists signing new record deals can negotiate better royalty rates today than in the past. And with heritage artists, many labels – including all three majors – have committed to pay royalties through to unrecouped artists after a period of time.

Meanwhile, he said, “we’ve been doing work on the industry side with the Musicians’ Union, where we’ve put a proposal to the MU for a significant increase in session rates for the session musicians to ensure that they are not left behind”. This basically meant that the BPI and MU were in talks to amend an agreement that, among other things, sets a minimum rate for session musicians involved in new recordings.

However, at that select committee hearing music-maker groups argued that much more still needed to be done to address how artists and songwriters – including session musicians – share in the monies generated when their music is streamed.

To that end, those groups welcomed the news last month that the government is now convening a working group focused on music-maker remuneration.

Shortly before that working group was announced, it emerged that the BPI/MU talks over the deal for session musicians working on new recordings had not resulted in any agreement. That is partly because of a disagreement over what is a fair rate for session musicians to be paid – and what rights those musicians should grant a label or frontline artist in return for that payment.

But it’s also partly because of a disagreement over whether or not session musicians should earn when recordings they performed on in the past are streamed. Under copyright law, session musicians are due remuneration when their music is broadcast or played in public, oblivious of any deal they did with any other labels or other artists in the past.

Many in the music-maker community reckon that a similar arrangement should apply to streams, whether that is achieved through an extension of performer rights in law or a voluntary agreement within the industry. But in a statement issued to Music Business Worldwide, the BPI’s interim CEO Sophie Jones says that those demands – on top of the “generous deal” offered around new recordings – are neither “viable nor reasonable”.

However, MU General Secretary Naomi Pohl argues that, even with the BPI’s proposed changes, session musicians’ rates “would remain lower than other equivalent MU recording rates”. Meanwhile, “the BPI represents major record labels who are making record profits from music streaming while session musicians currently receive no royalties at all, even if they play on big hits”.

With the negotiations having stalled, the MU will now be keen to put session musician payments – on both new and existing recordings – on the agenda for the new remuneration working group.

The full statement from BPI’s Sophie Jones reads as follows: “The BPI and its record label members have offered the Musicians’ Union a historically high increase of nearly 40% in the minimum fees paid to session musicians working on pop and rock recordings (15% for classical, ie working with orchestras)”.

“This unprecedented rise addresses the fact that session musician earnings have not increased since 2019, and have not risen as quickly as those of artists and songwriters in the streaming era. This offer also recognises the cost of living challenges faced by all workers, and is well above many of the negotiated settlements being reached in other parts of the economy”.

“It is disappointing that the MU declined to even put this offer to its members to make them aware and let them have their say, and simply dismissed it – citing technical procedures”.

“The demands that the MU are making on top of this generous deal, including royalty payments on past recordings where musicians have already been paid on agreed terms, are neither viable nor reasonable”.

“What the MU is asking would ultimately impact featured artist and songwriter earnings while also reducing the ability of labels to support future talent; and it ignores the way in which session musicians are paid – free to work with whomever they choose, usually as part of a portfolio career, and via a guaranteed upfront fee that is paid irrespective of a recording’s success or it even being released at all”.

“If you look to the world of film and TV for comparisons, this move would be like film companies being asked to retrospectively pay a royalty to all the cast and extras engaged to work on a project”.

“The offer we have made would benefit session musicians with a guaranteed pay rise whilst enabling record companies to also support featured artists and future investment”.

“At a time when our industry faces many common challenges, not least with AI, which poses a particular threat to musician livelihoods, it is vital that we all work together in a spirit of collaboration to grow the UK music market and music exports to the benefit of all. We urge the MU to think again and consult their members on this significant offer”.

Meanwhile, the MU’s Naomi Pohl says: “The BPI have made an offer of a roughly 38% increase on the £130 minimum session rate for commercial recording sessions. There is a 15% offer on the classical rates. Even with a 38% increase, the session rate has barely increased in fifteen years and would remain lower than other equivalent MU recording rates. On this basis, MU committee members don’t feel the offer is good enough to put to a ballot of members”.

“The BPI represents major record labels who are making record profits from music streaming while session musicians currently receive no royalties at all, even if they play on big hits”.

“The union is campaigning to fix streaming and get royalties for all musicians, like on radio broadcast for example. The BPI’s offer referred to remunerating session musicians for streaming but an uplift on the session fee would not help the thousands of musicians on popular catalogues who receive nothing at all. They also want to bundle in some other important rights including buying out an existing royalty stream”.

“All in all, the deal doesn’t come close to addressing the music streaming issue or offering a decent pay rise. The minimum session fee has been far too low for far too long. We hope for a better offer and will continue to campaign for royalties on streaming. And we look forward to engaging in the creator remuneration working group which we hope will examine options for fair remuneration for all musicians, including featured and session players”.