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3 December 2021

Can a British MP “fix” music streaming?

Kevin Brennan’s new copyright bill hopes to ensure artists are paid fairly for their music.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Kevin Brennan first became the Labour MP for Cardiff West in 2001, the music industry was a very different beast to today. The online file-sharing service Napster had threatened the monetisation of recorded music, and the industry was “in danger of collapse”, said Brennan. Then paid-for download services – most prominently iTunes – grew popular and “partially resolved” the situation. “It enabled there to at least be some reasonable recovery to monetise music.”

Now, the dominance of music streaming has torn this concept to shreds. A single Spotify stream is reportedly valued at less than $0.004, a figure that an artist might see a share of if they have recouped on their record deal. Meanwhile, the streaming platform is valued at $54bn. “The industry hasn’t done what it should have done to ensure that the people who are responsible for all that wonderful output get a decent share of the wealth,” said Brennan. 

This is the central premise of a new copyright bill, proposed by Brennan, which receives its second reading in the House of Commons today (3 December). Brennan, who was born in Cwmbran, South Wales, in 1959, spoke over Zoom in late November from his Cardiff home. A guitar hung from the wall beside him. He was a music fan long before he became active in politics, he said. As a teenager he played the guitar and wrote songs, performing in bands and in folk clubs with his sister. His love of music has continued: Brennan put out his first album, The Clown & The Cigarette Girl, in October 2021, becoming the first sitting MP to release a solo record.

Brennan isn’t asking music fans to boycott streaming services. He subscribes to Spotify himself and doesn’t feel guilty about it, although he acknowledges what a “small sum of money” £9.99 a month for access to almost all the music ever recorded is. “You can’t disinvent technology,” he said of his attempt to change UK legislation rather than deal directly with streaming platforms. “You just need to make it work in a way that will benefit those people who are the bedrock of this whole industry – the creators.”

Brennan has held positions in the cabinet and shadow cabinet for education and business. In this parliament, he is focusing on select committee work, somewhere he thinks he can be “a bit more effective”. The findings of a cross-party select committee investigation into the economics of music streaming, which was launched in October 2020, are the basis of Brennan’s private members’ bill.

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First on the agenda is a call for “equitable remuneration” to apply to music streaming. The term is used to describe the method by which artists and songwriters receive royalties for radio plays and other public broadcasts. This comparison makes sense, Brennan said, because Spotify has consistently made clear its desire to replace traditional radio

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Under equitable remuneration the song’s copyright owner (typically the record label) splits royalties with performers 50/50. (Currently, the average artist’s share of streaming royalties is about 16 per cent.) Notably, this revenue share would be paid directly by a digital service provider (such as Spotify) to an entity that distributes the money directly to artists, bypassing labels. “I don’t think anyone’s claiming that this is going to make a lot of people rich,” said Brennan. “But what it would mean is that artists would have a sum to which they were entitled by law. It adds that bit of fairness.” An equivalent law has already been applied to streaming in other countries such as Spain.

The bill also proposes that artists should have the right to reclaim their music after 20 years, “if the record company is doing nothing with it, or they’re dissatisfied with the deal”, Brennan explained. He cited Kieran Hebden, who releases electronic music as Four Tet, and who has made a legal claim for damages against his former record label, Domino, over its royalty rate for streaming and downloads. The contract in question was signed in 2001, well before the launch of Spotify in 2008 – and so does not include an agreement for streaming royalties. In November, Domino removed the three Four Tet albums that come under this contract from all streaming platforms, claiming it was advised to do so for legal reasons, and in doing so withholding income from Hebden, as well as itself. Brennan’s proposal would free artists from having their music held under such antiquated deals against their wishes.

As he left Westminster on 24 November, Brennan was met by a group of musicians singing a rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes” in support of the bill to “fix streaming”. Among the group was Tom Gray, a member of the band Gomez and the founder of the #BrokenRecord campaign; the musician and producer Crispin Hunt, who has spear-headed the campaign on Twitter; and representatives of the Musicians’ Union. The bill also has the support of the Ivors Academy – the professional association for songwriters, named after Ivor Novello, who, “just by a little coincidence”, Brennan said, “was born in my constituency. There’s even a blue plaque to mark his place of birth.”

But the bill has not been welcomed across the whole industry. Its intention is to generate “additional revenue to artists and songwriters”, Brennan said; it will fall to labels to pay equitable remuneration. In a statement, the British Phonographic Industry said the bill “completely misunderstands today’s music business, and the value that labels provide in finding and nurturing talent”. The Association of Independent Music said it believes “the approach to streaming should be data first, discussion second, and law last… Legislating before this is reckless.”

“There’s an attempt by some of the industry to say that the reforms I’m proposing are not up to date,” said Brennan, “but this is a modernising proposal.” At the core of the bill is an understanding that as the music industry adapts to keep up with technological development, so too must contracts, pay and legislation. “Music is changing but we need to make sure that the key principle is adhered to: artists mustn’t be forgotten.”