IASPM day 2 – Creativity, Competition and the Collecting Societies

PRSCreativity, Competition and the Collecting Societies. John Street (University of East Anglia, UK)
Why do democratic states regulate music? What values do they hope to realise? Many different answers are given (‘diversity’, ‘excellence’, ‘innovation’, etc.), but typically the assumption is that music is, in some way, ‘special’, both in resepect of other market goods and even in respect of other cultural goods. This paper explores the politics of the regulation of markets in music, first by considering the claim to ‘specialness’, and then by considering how the link between creativity and competition has been imagined in policy and in practice. The paper ends by focusing on key actors in the market in music – the collecting societies. These bodies, central to the realisation of income in the digital economy, have been largely overlooked, and yet they are crucial players in determining the interplay of competition and creativity. They help shape the market in politically and culturally significant ways, and so determine the values.

John’s presentation is an early manifestation of his project work with Dave Laing, and there will be other outputs as it progresses. He began with a slide of a ‘blocked’ blank YouTube video in German, representing the fact that the German collection society has not yet reached agreement with YouTube/Google. The same slide included information about the UK Arts Council’s ‘Momentum project’ (with UK Performing Right Society) whereby modest startup funding is now available to popular music practitioners – an admission, perhaps, that market forces are no longer enough to help new artists to get started. John then cites some touchstones, including UK Music’s report Liberating Creativity, the Hargreaves Report (2011) on copyright, and the Draft EC Directive on collective rights management (2012). The points he is making are the collecting societies are important, and are currently experiencing change (and change in context).

John’s position (and I share it) is that such market-derived constraints have a very real effect on creators, and he attempts to unpick these as the paper proceeds. He observes that collection societies are little studied in academic literature [I infer this may partly be because academics are likely to be ignorant of the societies’ mechanisms unless they are also members].

He defines views of Creativity as consisting of ‘Romantics’ and ‘Pragmatists’, and I (and most academics, as he says) usually analyse it from the PoV of the latter. He moves on to a discussion of the UK music industry’s explicit assumption that Competition Is Good, and cites some compelling examples (e.g. the intentional sidelining of EMI publishing when EMI/Universal merged]. This is contrasted by the effective monopolies that the CSs have – the monopoly being a necessary evil, administratively speaking. The ‘solidarity argument’ also supports a positive view of the monopoly, the CSs having a partly lobbying role; he criticises a ‘neoliberal’ approach to being suspicious of monopolies generally.

Next, he looks at change in the industry, picking up the necessity of this in the context of online broadcasting (being geographically borderless). The implicit fragmentation that may take place may become harmful to the positive aspects of the CSs’ monopoly status.

Here, John touches on first principles – asking what creativity means, what innovation means, and how competition may drive this. He then looks at the ways our society may quantify musical innovation and/or creativity in the music industry (e.g. number of independent labels, extent of unionisation etc). All the indicators seem to suggest that the extent of creativity in the market is not diminishing, despite the arguable shrinking of income streams into the industry.

He then returns to the CSs, and discusses what they may be able to do in their ‘solidarity role’ to promote industrial innovation and diversity, and asks an extremely important question – do we have any evidence that interventions make a difference to levels of creativity?. He questions whether such evidence exists, and points out that there is negligible research into the effects of ‘intervention’ investment into venues or labels.

So there are two possible (opposing) directions the industry could take – de-regulation or re-regulation. John uses the political/administrative problems he has identified to take us to a ‘what next’ question, arguing for more analysis of collective management regimes, depending on proxies for ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’, and a plea for sober evaluation of the role of competition in the music industry. One imminent development is the Global Repertoire Database (a potential single port of call for licensing), and he ends with a question – does this really benefit everyone?

John responds to an extremely detailed set of points and questions from Simon Frith, who suggests that the CSs may be trying to preserve an old industrial model, having failed thus far to engage in ‘taxing the ISPs’ or a similar equivalent. One of Simon’s important points relates to a perceived lack of modernisation of the CSs (a common criticism levelled at the music industry generally perhaps) in its tardy response to the arrival of digital distribution.

He points out the marginalisation of the indie labels, and reflects on the BBC’s role as a licensing body, celebrating its principle that ‘music is music’ and noting that it rewards Elton John in no greater terms (per minute/play) than an unsigned artist.

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