Comment: Billy Bragg

Political singer songwriter Billy Bragg tells M why musicians need to make sure their voices are heard in the streaming debate...

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 30 Jun 2014
  • min read
Billy Bragg is a political singer and songwriter. He’s best known for songs such as Sexuality and New England, and his campaign work for a range of organisations including the Featured Artist Coalition. He released his 12th studio album Tooth and Nail in 2013.

I’m a Spotify subscriber as well as an artist so streaming is of great interest to me, particularly when recent figures from Merlin over the last 12 months show the income it’s distributed to rightsholders has doubled.

The public are obviously warming to streaming as a way of consuming music, so artists need to be more involved in the debate surrounding it. Particularly as Spotify is a platform willing to pay us. It seems interested in working with artists as well as rightsholders. By attacking streaming services, we’re shooting the messenger rather than those making the weather.

So where is the problem? The key to fair remuneration is in our recording contracts. It’s not with the platforms. Clearly artists feel they aren’t getting a fair bite out of the cherry so we need to have a conversation about the digital royalty process as well as the type of contracts we expect young artists to sign. The great thing about Spotify is it has put all this on the agenda just by existing.

The outcome of this debate needs to be a service that consumers can trust to reward those making the music that touches them. In my experience, listeners want you to make more of this music. They don’t care if you’re on Universal, Domino or selling it off the back of a wagon. They just want you to continue doing it. I trust consumers to want to support artists. They want the industry to reform itself in a way that means artists get fair remuneration.

Almost all artists’ contracts, even in our 20th century contracts, have a clause saying licensing money can be split 50:50. You could argue that streaming is a licence rather than ownership - tracks are licensed to Spotify, then Spotify makes them available in the way tracks are made available for a film or TV programme. If the labels accept this and offer a 50:50 split, then we would start to see a fair deal for artists.

Consumers are spooked by artists complaining about services. They would prefer to use a service which treats artists fairly. It’s a very simple reform and doesn’t impact contracts for many songwriters. If it doesn’t happen, then I think it may come to lawsuits. That’ll be a shame because many people will waste a lot of money giving it to lawyers. The industry needs to accept that streaming is a licence and royalties can be paid in those terms. We can then look at physical and digital and work out different rights for them.

The discovery of new artists is another area needing definition. In the old days it was relatively simple - you listened to John Peel. He played oldies, music from all around the world and many new artists too. You’d hear things that would change your musical outlook. We still need those kind of filters and I don’t think there are enough places online. The whole industry needs to work to help the dissemination of new music as this is the holy grail of the digital industry – how we work out a path to new artists. How an outsider like myself or David Byrne can receive public recognition without selling our souls to one of the major labels. That’s what I worry is lacking. Where do the outsiders go now? In the past the NME would support you when it was in their interests to keep finding new, exciting music. But that seems to have broken down.

The more artists speak out about both these situations, talk to their labels and stir up debate the better. It’s in all of our interests to get fair remuneration and to support new artists. I want the situation to be like when Jerry Dammers walked in off the streets with an idea, and six months later was a national figure. I remember that happening and I don’t see that now. That concerns me the most. Our ability to find art which resonates with us in an emotional sense is still with us and there will always be a market for creativity. I don’t worry about that. I do worry about the ability of someone with a particular vision being able to cut through the bullshit in the way we did during punk.

We are in danger of being swamped by the mainstream and that needs to change. We need to encourage discovery. As much as I like Spotify, it just tells me to listen to my old record collection. It even recommended I listen to Billy Bragg the other day. We need to find a John Peel algorithm that makes us go the opposite way.