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The Singer Or The Song

mitch28 January 2011

The value of music and its agent of protection, copyright, have always been vulnerable to attack. Never more so than today: Almost every decision seems to go the wrong way in US courts, as it does here with our own dear Copyright Tribunal.

Some years ago, the safeguard afforded to music writers and publishers by minimum payments per album track, fell victim to the folly of a pro-rata system.
This resulted in, among other abuses, the inclusion of ‘Bonus Tracks’ registered to ‘Copyright Control’, almost certainly ‘buy-outs’, and obviously designed to minimise royalty shares for the remaining songs — the tracks people actually want to hear. Put this together with albums packed with fifty or sixty tracks and the phenomenon of give-away CD’s and DVD’s in newspapers and it is little wonder that the consumer is losing any awareness of the value of music and copyright, generally.

Don’t get me started on the Internet! This earnings-free zone, into which the industry worldwide has blown billions in anticipation of a cash bonanza which shows no signs of happening, has developed a culture of free material, encouraging outrage in many music fans who are suddenly faced with actually having to pay for the stuff. ITunes, YouTube and other legitimate royalty-paying sites cannot in any way be considered replacements for the failing physical market.

The good news is that PRS For Music’s economist, Will Page and his team, have calculated that the value of online sales will equal that of physical sales by the year 2015. The bad news is that, by then, the physical market will have declined to unacceptably low levels; so let’s not get too excited by the good news.
In any case, it may be that Will’s projections now look optimistic in the light of recent figures showing an unexpected levelling out of online activity. It is believed that having replaced their CD collections with downloads, consumers have no great urge to continue buying at anything like the same levels.

With this cheery scenario, all we need is someone like Joss Stone declaring to the world, as she did, that ‘Piracy is great!’ and that music should be ‘free’, ‘shared’, ‘as long as people come and jam’. It’s easy to put this green-light for copyright theft down to youthful idealism and naivety, but we shouldn’t be fooled — she and other self-serving artistes are using the treasure of copyright merely as a promotion tool for their live appearances.

All this ‘music should be free and shared’ stuff seems to come shuddering to a halt when it’s time for fans to pay for tickets at gigs. Suddenly, music has a value. Surprise, surprise. Meanwhile, copyright has been kicked in the butt by this cynical double-standard. Artistes who also write, like young Miss Stone, sometimes forget writers who don’t perform. What happens, for instance, to other songwriters involved in Joss Stone songs. How do they earn?

At a recent BASCA Masterclass, I asked Guy Chambers how he felt about all this. Guy revealed to the audience that Joss Stone had once phoned him to ask if she could include one of his copyrights royalty-free, in a special give-away to her fans. He was naturally reluctant and asked her what he’d be getting out of it. He told her he may be willing to allow it if, for instance, she would put one of his songs on her next album. The outcome? Guy said he seems to remember the song was given away to the fans nevertheless and that he didn’t get a track on the album.

Forget for a moment that Guy Chambers is one of the top-earning writers of our time. Most non-performing songwriters are potentially in a very weak position. In truth, the big bucks are being made by tours and live gigs — mere songwriters have to rely on what’s left, and ‘what’s left’ right now, doesn’t seem to have much of a future.

The distinction between performing and writing, these days, is really blurred in the minds of music fans. For the most part, they see singing, playing and songwriting as one process. We need to find ways to clarify the way things are done. To demonstrate that songs have to be crafted and lovingly constructed before any performance can take place, and show them that this skill is not exclusive to performing artistes. If the public cannot make these distinctions, how is our industry going to articulate the need for fair rewards from music users in the future?

© Mitch Murray 2010