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19 July 2021

Billy Bragg: The rise of streaming has sidelined songwriters for far too long

As a new government report makes clear, in the age of digital music songwriters deserve greater remuneration.

By Billy Bragg

A few years ago, I heard a song that I just couldn’t get out of my head. It was by an artist I’d never heard of, a track from their debut album. As I shamefully no longer have access to a decent record player, I bought the download and was wowed by the emotional depth of the lyricism that ran through the work. Seeking a deeper connection with the artist, I sought to find if they had written these songs. iTunes couldn’t help me. There were no details attached to the mp4, nothing on the Apple artist page that gave a clue to the composition of the material. I checked the artist’s website to no avail. Lots of moody pictures and tour dates, but no information about who wrote the songs. Can I be the only person who finds such things important? 

In the age of vinyl, I wouldn’t have faced this problem. If you came across the 45rpm single of “Walk Away Renee” by the Four Tops at your local car boot sale, the physical artefact would give you a trove of information about what is in the grooves. Obviously the name of record company, Tamla Motown, is prominent on the paper label attached to both sides of the disc. The artist’s name is there, along with the title of the song. But below it in brackets is the name of the songwriter. In the case of “Walk Away Renee” it was plural: Brown-Calilli-Sansone. Below that is the production credit, the names of the people who made this incredible sounding thing: Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. To the left you can find the name of the song’s publisher: Intersong Music Ltd. Beneath that, the record’s catalogue number, TMG 1011, and finally the year the song was published, 1967. 

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These details are all the clues you need to search out more material from the people who made this music that so moved you. What else did Holland and Dozier produce? Did Michael Brown, Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone write any other songs? What else came out on Tamla Motown in 1967? While the information on every record label is a mine of information for music fans and audiophiles alike, that’s not why it was printed there. All those details were recorded to ensure that the creators of the record got paid. That physical connection, between creator and creation, continued into the CD age, but the rise of the download and, more recently, the audio stream, have broken that link. 

The major streaming services – Spotify, YouTube, Amazon and Apple – bury these credits as footnotes, if they include them at all. And while the rights holders are eager to profit from the new delivery system, their accounting is still based in the vinyl age. 

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Back then, labels had to do the heavy lifting, physically making and distributing records. They took the greater risk and, as a result, demanded a larger slice of the profits. The average record contract paid the artist around 15 per cent of the wholesale price and demanded ownership of the rights for the maximum life of copyright: 70 years after the artist died. As a result, such contracts remain in force today, over half a century after “Walk Away Renee” was recorded. 

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The rights to that single are now owned by Universal Music, who along with the Sony and Warner music labels make up nearly 70 per cent of the record industry. When they receive royalties from that song, they pay the Four Tops estate according to the contract the group signed in the 1960s, despite the fact that manufacture and distribution are now only the matter of a few clicks on a mouse. Shamefully, some labels still offer new artists royalty rates that are based on the old physical business model today. 

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport recently released a report calling for equitable remuneration for artists and revenue parity for songwriters and composers. This should begin with the industry-wide adoption of a 50/50 royalty split between artists and labels for all digital recordings, whether heritage or brand new. The introduction of a limit on ownership of copyright would give artists the right to reclaim possession of their work after 20 years. And artists can never be sure that they are being properly paid while the woeful lack of transparency around the financial relationship between labels and the streaming services makes it almost impossible to properly audit their revenue flow. It’s true that the streaming services’ lack of transparency around royalty rates and the use of algorithms creates problems for artists, but legacy practices in the record industry are a bigger obstacle to equitable remuneration. 

In the vinyl age, the creators were literally at the centre of the music industry: their names were there in the middle of the disc for everyone to see. Artists will never be fairly treated by the streaming companies until they return the content creators to the centre of their offer to music lovers. 

[See also: How I learned to love the Rolling Stones]