Photo by ajburgess
In Britain, there’s an organisation called PRS for Music. They’re a membership organisation of composers and songwriters, and they collect royalties on behalf of those members, whenever music is performed publicly or broadcast.
And the PRS has reciprocal arrangements with other collection societies world wide - APRA in Australasia, IMRO in Ireland, ASCAP & BMI in the States, etc. So whenever a British composer’s music is played in France, money can return to that composer.
It’s a great system, and it means that people get paid when their creations are used - particularly in a profit-making context (eg: getting played on the radio; used as mood music in a restaurant or bar; performed live in concert; played by a DJ in a nightclub).
But it’s a far from perfect system.
The trouble with Rights Organisations
There is a fundamental problem and it’s a data problem. Accuracy in reporting is the issue. Because with the sheer amount of outlets, opportunities for broadcast and blanket licensing being done, the collection societies have to do an incredible amount of guesswork to try and distribute money fairly.
Radio stations do not report every single song they play, but are periodically sampled. Bars and clubs pay blanket licence fees, but do not typically report every composition that gets played each night of the week.
And so there’s a lot of stuff that simply falls through the cracks and doesn’t get counted - and typically, this disadvantages the people who get very few plays. And I’m not talking about ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘unpopular’ artists - I’m talking about new artists, artists who work in specialist and niche genres of music and, in fact, everyone who’s not in the upper echelons of the music biz (let’s say - for the sake of argument - the top 20% of composers).
Because the fact is, if your music gets played on the radio five times, but only one of those times are counted, the collection society will assume, based on statistical probability, that it was not your song but, let’s say, Elton John’s that got played those other four times.
That is, of course, an oversimplification of the problem - but it neatly describes the net effect.
Estimation and extrapolation hugely favour the already well-represented when you’re working from broad sets of information from the larger bars, radio stations and other outlets, rather than the pinpoint-accurate granular data you’d get if you were able to count every play of every song in every club, pub, bar, workplace, internet radio station, and so on.
Because if you don’t even show up on the radar, you won’t even be factored in when the sample data is used as the basis of dividing up the cash.
PRS wants to be fair
This is not a problem of not caring about the little guy. As membership organisations, royalty collection societies want to help those members, and not just the rich and famous ones (I know people who dispute this presupposition, but let’s assume for the moment that it’s true).
This is a simple matter of the tension between the desire for perfect data reporting, and the perceived cost of increasing existing levels of accuracy.
PRS for Music could actually attain near-perfect reporting accuracy - but they might not have much money left to distribute to their members if they did (actually, I don’t think it’d be nearly as expensive to meaningfully improve their accuracy as they think it would be - but that’s another debate).
So - another solution is required. One that costs no more to administer, but is significantly more egalitarian. I have one in mind - and it’s one that not only helps the overlooked and out-of-pocket composers, but actually proactively improves the music landscape.
The 80/20 solution
Here are the figures:
PRS membership statistics from their website
PRS revenue statistics from their audited financial results [PDF]
To use round numbers, then:
There are 60,000 members of PRS, for whom a total of £600m is collected and shared out.
My proposal is simply this:
Take 20% of the total revenue, and spread it evenly between the bottom 80% of composer members.
The remaining 80% of the money collected then becomes the pool from which PRS can attempt to accurately and fairly distribute according to the records and statistical data that they have.
On the numbers above, this would mean that 48,000 members of PRS would automatically receive a baseline sum of £2,500 in a year. They would then receive a proportion of the remaining money based on airplay, public performance or concerts that had actually been reported to the society.
There’d be several positive effects of this very simple intervention:
1) It would go a small way to close the gap between the incredibly well-represented members - the popstars and television theme tune composers - and those who tend to be under-represented in the statistics: dance music producers, independent bands, contemporary classical composers, independent film soundtrack producers, and other niche music makers;
2) It would provide a very strong incentive for new artists to join the collection society;
3) It would inject small amounts of capital into the independent and marginal music scene. £2,500 is not enough to live on for a year, but it is enough to buy a new guitar amp, fix the touring van, record an EP, shoot a low-budget video, get some professional photography done, pay a decent website developer, commission a string arranger for the album, make t-shirts, print flyers, do some press - or whatever small but career-changing act that not having that money is currently preventing.
In other words, the 80/20 solution not only corrects the problem of a lack of data that exists down the shallow end of the royalties pool, it also goes beyond merely paying composers, and starts investing in new music cultural production.
It’s not fair
The 80/20 solution is not a ‘fair’ method. But it’s not trying to be. This is better than fair. Fair, in this instance, does not mean egalitarian or ‘a level playing field’.
Fair, when it comes to royalty distribution simply means that the people with the most populist works that have the best connections and the most money spent on marketing will necessarily get the most money.
Fair means that innovation and experimentation are neither encouraged nor rewarded. Fair means that the safest, most mainstream and most formulaic music gets the vast majority of the money.
Now, this would still be the case under the 80/20 solution. Don’t forget that of that £600m, £480m is still to be divided up under the old system. Elton John and Phil Collins will not be made paupers under this scheme.
But what it means is that the people who were pretty much guaranteed to get only the smallest of sums (if anything), despite the fact that they might be played in contexts that are invisible to the collection society due to the granularity of the data, can now get money that they deserve.
In other words, this moves it from simply being about paying composers - and makes it also about investing in composition.
And it means that even if a small number of composers end up getting money that they didn’t earn, that money is still going to composers - and it’s going to the composers who need it the most in order to continue and develop what they do.
We’re talking about the ones for whom that £2,500 would make all the difference in the world - both to them and to their fans - and perhaps even the difference that might lift them from the bottom 80% into the top 20%.
An opportunity for cynicism
Where this might all fall down, of course, is if the rights organisations are unduly influenced by their most moneyed and most influential members - the rich songwriters, and in particular, the large publishing companies who are the ones who stand to have their margins topsliced by such a move.
An organisation that wishes to benefit the majority of their members, rather than simply bow to the wishes of the most powerful who are already getting a larger proportion than they probably deserve (and want to hang onto that edge no matter what) would certainly be drawn to consider a proposal such as this.
I happen to think the PRS is such an organisation. I’ve met people from the PRS, and I believe that they do care about all of their members, and not just the ones that make the most money.
But it’d be interesting to find out what the realpolitik of that might be, and how that played out. I’m certainly not holding my breath.