Streaming isn’t working for artists. What is the problem and how do we fix it?

Although streaming is nowadays the main way of accessing music, performing artist sare not being fairly paid for their work.

On May 2nd – at the opening of the International Cultural Week in Stockholm – Swedish performers met with their European counterparts for a discussion on the problems inherent in streaming, and how to fix them.

Organised by SAMI, the Swedish Artists’ and Musicians’ Interest Organisation, and AEPO-ARTIS, the Association of European Performers’ Organisations, the panel discussion gathered over 130 music professionals and policy-makers from Sweden and across Europe, with many more joining remotely.

Dispelling a few myths, the panel started with a short explanation of how streaming works, and more specifically how it does not work for performers. It was explained that, contrary to what is often believed, platforms like Spotify do not pay musicians directly. Instead, they pay record labels who then distribute the money to featured artists only, based on the contracts between labels and artists. The inequity this creates is due to most of these contracts being unfair, leaving the musicians with a very low proportion (if any) of the revenue. In the case of non-featured artists (“session musicians”), they receive no share of streaming remuneration at all.

“The simple fact is that where there is human endeavour, and it’s making somebody else wealthy, that wealth, should at least be shared with the person who made the endeavour. And it’s kind of mind- blowing that you can create a business where that doesn’t happen… but here we are.” said Tom Gray, British musician, songwriter and founder of the #BrokenRecord campaign that aims to change current unfairness in the music industry.

But how do we change it? Anneli Axelsson, Swedish singer, musician, songwriter and President of the West Sweden’s branch of the Musicians’ Association commended the recent study “Streams & Dreams” by the Swedish academic Daniel Johansson, which supports the introduction of equitable remuneration and shows artists’ large-scale dissatisfaction with streaming.

Criticising a controversial report in Sweden which failed to recommend the introduction of an equitable remuneration right, she argued that its author had not listened to the voice of the artists, saying “It’s time to do that report again. And to do it right.” This criticism comes as no surprise, bearing in mind that numerous other studies have been published arguing in favour of the introduction of such a right.

Talking about the implementation of the Copyright Directive in Belgium, Tom Kestens, Belgian musician, songwriter and advisor to the Belgian Government, pointed out that Belgium was a country which did listen to artists. This led them to the conclusion that a right to equitable remuneration was the “best legal option for performers to be fairly remunerated for their work”.

He stated: “You have to look each other in the eye and say: ‘what do we really believe?’ At some point you have to make a choice about whether you will make a bold move. What the European Copyright Directive has done really well is to say to the whole of Europe, fair renumeration for artists is the right thing to do.”

PlayRight (the Belgian CMO for actors and musicians) will collect equitable remuneration from streaming platforms and distribute this revenue directly to performers. “The system has already proved to be very efficient. Spain has been applying it for years, leading to the overall greater satisfaction of artists” said Tom Kestens, adding that “the system is not complex to introduce”.

Addressing the consequences of not introducing a right to equitable remuneration, Tom Gray explained: “The problem is that linear broadcasting such as radio and TV is going down, but streaming is going up. We get paid from radio; we get paid from TV. Do we get paid from streaming? No, we do not. So what’s going to happen if legislators do nothing is that the situation will become profoundly worse.”

With a number of prominent Swedish politicians in attendance, including the former Minister of Culture Amanda Lind who expressed her disappointment that the Swedish inquiry into an unwaivable remuneration right did not lead to any concrete proposal, it seems that the message of the performers was heard and well received.

To quote Tom Kestens, “perfection is the enemy of progress”. It is now time for Sweden, and other EU countries, to show that they believe in artists and “make the bold move” of introducing equitable remuneration.