A new iTunes streaming service could be a disaster for songwriters

Two rumours in short succession have hinted that the digital music scene is moving firmly away from the buy-to-own (or rather, pay-to-permanently-license-with-terms-just-short-of-ownership) model – of iTunes, the Amazon MP3 Store and Bandcamp – towards the model which services like Spotify and its American competitors Pandora and Rdio use, where users pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to music.

The Telegraph reports that the BBC is considering launching an iPlayer-style service to make its archive available:

The service, dubbed Playlister, will give licence-fee payers free access to hundreds of thousands of music recordings without paying any additional fees.

The BBC has talked about the idea of making its vast archive of music recordings public in the past, but has always run into trouble clearing the rights.

However, it is understood to be in talks with Spotify and similar music services, such as the French-run Deezer and Apple’s iTunes music store in an effort to side-step the problem.

Those services have already signed bulk rights deals with music labels, who opt in because they would prefer to make some money from the online streaming service rather than watch the shift to digital formats obliterate their sales altogether.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple is planning a similar streaming music service:

Apple Inc. is in talks to license music for a custom-radio service similar to the popular one operated by Pandora Media Inc., according to people familiar with the matter, in what would be a bid by the hardware maker to expand its dominance in online music.

Apple’s service would work on its sprawling hardware family, including the iPhone, iPads and Mac computers, and possibly on PCs running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system, according to one of these people. It would not work on smartphones and tablets running Google Inc.’s Android operating system, this person added, highlighting the mounting battle for mobile dominance between the two technology giants.

This second type of service is possible because the licensing required to do it is less like a sale, and more like running a radio station. In the US, for instance, services like Pandora are required to have a cap on how frequently any one user can play any one song, to encourage people to buy songs they particularly want to play.

But as an interesting post at Digital Music News, from attorney Steve Gordon, argues, one of the most important differences between the two types of license is that in the radio-style licenses, songwriters are increasingly struggling to get any payment at all:

If Apple wants to launch their much anticipated, Pandora-like music service, they must negotiate directly with Sony/ATV for public performance rights. That's the word on the street, and if true, a dangerous turn of events. The reason is that until recently, performing rights organizations – ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (the "PROs") – offered blanket licenses on behalf of almost all the publishers, including all the majors. This dramatically changes that, with negative repercussions for songwriters.

In other words, just because you might get your music legally these days, don't think that the creators themselves are out of hot water.

Tim Cook launches new iPods at a press event last month. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain