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UK artist and songwriter groups welcome government commitment to music industry reform during Friday’s Brennan Bill debate

By | Published on Monday 6 December 2021

Houses Of Parliament

Groups representing artists, songwriters and managers have welcomed the UK government’s public confirmation on Friday that it expects the music industry to address the various issues that have been raised about the streaming economy, and its statement that ministers may come out in support of copyright law reforms if solutions are not forthcoming by next September.

That confirmation came from the minister responsible for intellectual property – Minister For Science, Research And Innovation, George Freeman – during the Parliamentary debate on the private members bill proposed by Kevin Brennan MP.

That bill was based on recommendations made earlier this year by Parliament’s culture select committee – of which Brennan is a member – following its inquiry into the economics of music streaming. It sought to alter the artist/label relationship, based on the argument that many artists have not benefited from the streaming boom because of the way record deals work, and how labels have chosen to interpret old record contracts.

Among other things, the bill proposed to change copyright law so that artists would have statutory rights to renegotiate old record deals and revoke previous rights assignments. It would also have introduced performer equitable remuneration on streaming income, meaning any artists signed to record labels would get some of their digital income through the collective licensing system.

It seemed unlikely that the government would back the bill, given ministers had already said that the copyright reforms recommended by the culture select committee all need more investigation, and with the Intellectual Property Office having already commissioned research on the impact of contract adjustment and copyright reversion rights, and the application of performer ER to streaming. Plus, of course, the Competitions & Market Authority has announced a market study into the digital music sector that will likely focus on the dominance of the majors.

Generally speaking, it’s very hard for legislation proposed by back bench MPs in Parliament to get passed without government backing. Supporters of the bill knew this, of course, but nevertheless felt that Brennan’s proposals would help maintain momentum around the campaign to change the way streaming works, which mainly seeks to alter how streaming monies are shared out between the various stakeholders in the music community.

During the long debate on Brennan’s proposals that took place on Friday, MPs from all sides of the political spectrum expressed support for the bill, showing there is cross-party pressure on the music industry to address the issues campaigners have raised.

Even those on the Conservative side that opposed the bill nevertheless generally acknowledged that there are issues that needed addressing. Many of those MPs cited the various concerns raised by record labels regarding the impact Brennan’s proposals would have on their ability to invest in new talent. But they also insisted that they believed Brennan’s bill was “well intentioned”, and that the challenges artists and songwriters face – which motivated the proposed copyright reforms – were real and needed to be dealt with.

That included Freeman. He confirmed that the government would prefer voluntary industry-led solutions to those challenges, noting that ministers had already convened a committee of music industry representatives – and had commissioned the aforementioned research – to help facilitate such solutions. But, he added, if no solutions were forthcoming by next September, the government could as yet come out in support of the kind of copyright reforms recommended by the select committee and included in Brennan’s bill.

As for that bill, it wasn’t actually voted down on Friday. However, Brennan didn’t manage to force a vote on his proposals during Friday’s debate, meaning the bill would need further discussion in the House Of Commons in order to proceed to the next stage, where a committee would be appointed to scrutinise the copyright reforms. And it is very unlikely any time will now be available for that further discussion.

However, for Brennan – and organisations like the Musicians’ Union, Ivors Academy, Featured Artists Coalition and Music Managers Forum, as well as the Tom Gray led #brokenrecord campaign – getting the government to publicly demand action from the music industry, with the threat of future copyright reform if it doesn’t happen, was a considerable win.

Following the debate on Friday, Brennan himself said: “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”.

“Equitable remuneration for performers is already in effect, or currently being implemented, in territories across Europe, while British creators continue to struggle financially”, he went on. “I will continue to push for legislative solutions to make sure that music makers in the UK receive a fairer share of streaming revenues, helping to make the UK the best place in the world to be a musician. I believe that reform is coming even if we may have to wait a little longer than hoped”.

Meanwhile, Horace Trubridge, General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union, said: “The debate in Parliament demonstrated that support for fixing streaming bridges party divides, and in his speech the minister made it clear that government is open to introducing legislation to reform copyright in the event that the industry doesn’t find a solution voluntarily”.

“It’s by no means the end of the #fixstreaming campaign. Musicians’ Union members along with the Ivors Academy and #brokenrecord have won a select committee inquiry and a referral to the Competition & Markets Authority so far. We look forward to taking an active role in ongoing work led by the IPO which could address issues such as the lack of transparency and fair remuneration in music streaming”.

Tom Gray also welcomed the commitment made by government on Friday, reckoning that Brennan’s bill has demonstrated that there is popular and cross-party support for artist friendly copyright reforms, therefore shifting the political narrative and shaping future debate, or – if you prefer – “moving the Overton window”. He also noted that many in the label community had argued that Brennan’s proposals needed more scrutiny backed up by real world data, and then called on labels to make sure that data is now made available.

“We’ve made clear throughout, this bill had almost no chance of passing, but by engaging our MPs, by engaging the government, we moved the Overton window”, he wrote on Twitter. “The industry is on a clock. [And] if [labels are] going to talk about being ‘evidence-based’, [they are] going to have to provide data instead of bullshit. The government made clear it will legislate if need be. Far from a defeat, we’ve energised a conversation”.

The FAC and MMF also welcomed Friday’s debate and the commitments Freeman made during it. The two organisations’ CEOs – David Martin and Annabella Coldrick respectively – stated: “Kevin Brennan MP has done a fantastic job of highlighting endemic market failures in the recorded music business. Despite his bill falling at this hurdle, the trajectory towards reform, and the eradication of outdated industry practices, now feels unstoppable – especially now there is public backing for change from the Minister For Science, Research And Innovation”.

“The government has delivered a very clear message to major labels, publishers and collecting societies”, they went on, “if you don’t deliver change, then legislation cannot be ruled out. To these ends, a number of initiatives and forums are already underway, all with the goal of ensuring artists, songwriters, producers and musicians can benefit fairly from the growth in music streaming and any new technologies to come”.

Speaking specifically for the songwriting community, Ivors Academy CEO Graham Davies added: “Today’s debate of the Brennan Bill is a landmark moment on the path to the inevitable modernisation of the music industry. The government accepted that reform must take place to level-up payments for music makers. It is not a matter of if this reform happens but how. For the UK to be the best place in the world to create music we need to strike a new balance of power between those who innovate and those who invest in music. We take forward Kevin Brennan’s work and his call on the government to establish equity in the UK”.

From the label side, record industry trade group BPI again set out its objections to Brennan’s bill on Friday afternoon, but also insisted that its members had listened to the arguments made before and during the Brennan Bill debate, and that they would engage “positively and proactively” to find solutions for the issues that had been raised.

BPI CEO Geoff Taylor stated: “As many contributions to the debate in Parliament made clear, Mr Brennan’s Bill, though well-intentioned, is not the right way forward for British music. The UK’s record labels – including hundreds of independents around the country – are committed to supporting their artists’ creative vision and building their global audience, so that many more reap the benefits of streaming success”.

“The bill’s proposals would undermine the essential investment that labels provide, harming new talent and future artists and the long term competitiveness of British music”, he went on. “We have listened to the arguments made across the debate and will engage positively and proactively with the process government has put in place to look for joint solutions to ensure the streaming market continues to grow and sustain the careers of many more artists”.

Meanwhile, speaking specifically for the independent community, the Association Of Independent Music said that it welcomed Freeman’s support for industry-led reform informed by the research the government has already commissioned. Prior to Friday’s debate, AIM argued that much more rigorous investigation was needed to assess the pros and cons of the different proposals that have been made to address the various issues with the streaming economy.

AIM wrote in an open letter last Thursday that “we have called repeatedly for urgent analysis and data to properly assess the issues, to make streaming work better for a greater and more diverse range of participants, and a government process is currently underway to deliver just that. The Brennan Bill puts the legislative cart before the data horse and stands to set back improvements in diversity and representation in music by a decade. If it passes, the Brennan Bill risks hurting the very communities that most need help”.

Following the debate, AIM CEO Paul Pacifico tweeted: “We stand in solidarity with creators and want to work together for a better music future – good to see the commitment to a robust process to that end by George Freeman in Parliament and we believe the right outcome on the specific proposals in the Brennan Bill today”.

And so the debate around how the music streaming business works continues. All eyes now will be on the IPO’s research and the CMA’s market study, and the proposals that come out of that work and the government convened music industry contact group.

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