'Covid-19 Is A Watershed Moment': How Musicians Are Waging A War On Streaming Platforms From Lockdown

Adam Bloodworth

“You’ve probably heard how bad streaming is before,” sighs Tom Gray of Mercury Prize-winning band Gomez. “That’s why I called this campaign #BrokenRecord.” 

Lockdown has been financially challenging for most of us, but musicians have had it disproportionately bad. After losing the ability to perform live in front of audiences, (although there is a movement for paid gigs from lockdown emerging), it’s fair to say most of their income has been decimated.

Without gig revenue, and the add-on profits made at the merchandise stand, artists have to rely on music sales - and in 2020, the majority of music is either consumed for free online or paid for via streaming platforms.

The trouble is, and this won’t come as a surprise to most music lovers, streaming platforms are notoriously tight with the purse strings. 

Tom has set up the #brokenrecord campaign to raise awareness of an issue he says is critical for the survival of artists. (Photo: Pic: Claire Gray)

According to artists like Tom, the fight for fairer wages from streaming platforms like Spotify has felt tiresome and ongoing, and despite a lot of noise from musicians, very little progress has been made over the past decade. Yet, this crisis might be the catalyst to instigate change.

Tom is one of the leading musicians behind the #BrokenRecord campaign being pushed on social media, with the aim of organising a ‘streaming summit’ where musicians’ fears can be heard - and finally, he hopes, change may come.  

Since the campaign was launched online it has raised over £2,500 in donations, which go to the PRS Emergency Relief Fund and the Musicians’ Union Coronavirus Hardship Fund to help struggling musicians right now.

And another campaign, Keep Music Alive, which uses the hashtag #fixstreaming, has amassed over 10,000 signatures so far and is calling on the Government to take action via a Change.org petition. 

It is backed by the Musicians Union and The Ivors Academy, which represent tens of thousands of musicians between them.

Both campaigns echo concerns shared by major voices like Boy George and KT Tunstall, suggesting the issue about fair pay over streams effects even commercially successful musicians, and a listening party has been organised for this weekend to rally support.

“Covid-19 is truly a watershed moment,” says Tom. “Those trying to fudge past this opportunity for change by maintaining the status quo have history against them. We can do better. We can make the music industry sustainable.”

The listening party takes place this weekend (Photo: HuffPost UK)

Tom and his allies argue that successful artists, writers and musicians cannot live from streaming income alone and yet streaming platforms produce billions of dollars for a select few corporations.

“#BrokenRecord is simply asking for a streaming summit,” he urges. “For all parties to sit down together, accepting that what we have isn’t great and could be improved.”

KT Tunstall, the British singer-songwriter behind Naughties hit Suddenly I See, was less reserved with her words when she lent her support of Tom’s campaign on social media.

The splits are completely, chronically, criminally wrong and it means that a lot of artists in this lockdown, because they can’t play live, are decimated,” KT told the STV TV station.

“Many artists aren’t going to be able to do this anymore after this has happened because they’re just going to have to get a job.”

A number of artists have come forward to illustrate how artist earnings from streaming platforms appear to be disproportionate to the money generated by the platforms overall.

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KT Tunstall has called streaming platforms royalties 'criminally wrong' and backs the campaign. (Photo: Carla Speight via Getty Images)

Tom has developed a table and called it Songwriter Supermarket to easier explain how he believes royalties are paid to artists per platform. 

“Artists and composers have been directly affected by the problems in current streaming business models since these platforms first emerged,” says jazz musician Emily Saunders

Echoing Tom Gray’s thinking, Emily supports the concept of streaming platforms, but speaking to HuffPost UK, says she thinks the financial situation needs a dramatic overhaul.

“Music streaming is with us to stay, as a great contemporary means of accessing and distributing content, but the problem exists in that the income from these subscriptions or advertising revenue, are barely passed onto those who are actually creating the music. 

“We can’t go on using old world models in a new world market.”

Emily has urged music lovers to sign the petition (Photo: HuffPost UK)

Tom has a number of suggestions for ways forward for streaming, which he would highlight at a summit for the #brokenrecord campaign involving labels, musicians and the streaming platforms.

He’s calling for streaming platforms to restructure their deals with labels and distributors, and for a more bespoke plan that only charges listeners for the music they listen to. “At the moment your subscription does not go to what you listen to. For an average listener, as much as 80% can go to music you don’t listen to and the platform,” he says.

“Even if this does not make anyone enormously better off, what it will certainly do is get more money to niche music and regional music. That is an ethical and cultural win, irrespective of the financial landscape.”

He also calls for increasing the value of the songs, paying songwriters a higher percentage of royalties than they currently get (13% shared with publishers, one sixth of what musicians earn), as well as “fully integrated” merchandise sites on streaming platforms so fans can “navigate into investing in their favourite music.”

He also calls on tech companies to readdress their business ethics and objectives when they create and monetise platforms they build.

“Tech companies will forever try to give stuff away because they are only interested in engagement and uptake,” he says. “This is completely at odds with the Intellectual Property rights that protect creators and allow us to make a living.

“So it is a broadband issue with Silicon Valley culture. How do you get people to subscribe when they can get it for free? It’s painful.

Meanwhile, streaming platforms broadly defend their royalties payments without commenting further on these specific campaigns.

HuffPost UK approached some major UK record labels to ask for their input on the debate, but most of those we approached declined to comment. 

YouTube spoke to HuffPost UK in response to the increasing anger from artists and, addressing financial challenges, they said: “If an artist’s channel is set up for monetisation, we are making sure they understand the options to generate revenue. This is obviously a challenging time, and our aim is to make sure that artists who are eligible can earn revenue by enabling ads on their live stream and the resulting VOD, or through our Super Chat and Super Stickers features.

"We pay the music industry the majority of the revenue generated on their music content on YouTube YouTube spokesperson

They added: “We pay the music industry the majority of the revenue generated on their music content on YouTube, paying rates that are on par with the rest of the industry across both the advertising and subscription businesses.”

Spotify couldn’t offer a comment around the specific campaigns but did offer a statement which read: “The vast majority of revenue generated on Spotify is paid out to rights holders, including labels, publishing companies, and distributors. 

“To date, we’ve paid out €15billion+. By connecting more creators and listeners, and leveraging the strength of our global reach, Spotify is helping fuel the growth of the music industry overall, which just experienced its fifth straight year of growth.”

The spokesperson also directed HuffPost UK readers to this Spotify for Artists article.

The #brokenrecord listening party takes place online and begins at 6pm on Sunday May 24th.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.