Kenny Barr (University of Glasgow, UK)
Paying the Piper: Constructing Narrative in the Contemporary Music Industries

gi.pngABSTRACT: In the 21st century the digitalisation of every facet of the production, dissemination and consumption of popular music presents an immensely complex set of challenges and opportunities to creators, investors and consumers. Encompassing a diverse range of disciplinary and methodological approaches, this panel identifies and engages with a number of key narratives relating to ways in which popular music creators are rewarded for their musical labour in the digital age and the wider ramifications for consumers and investors. Each paper interrogates and critiques distinct aspects of these unifying central themes. The first paper scrutinises the issue of fair remuneration of musical performers in the digital sphere and the efficacy of stakeholder responses and interventions. The next paper presents an empirical challenge to the dominant binary narratives found in many academic critiques of copyright as a means of rewarding popular music creators. The third paper argues that the erosion of collective licensing in the digital age has potentially negative ramifications for the availability and affordability of music to the consumer. The final paper explores the contentious issue of ‘value’ in the world of music streaming and argues that a new paradigm for ascribing and gauging value is required.

Kenny’s core research question: How do primary creators experience copyright in the contemporary music industry?
Research methods: narrative-based interviews, plus hard data via surveys, plus industry data.
The presentation is in three sections:

  1. Copyright and paying the piper [the mechanics]
  2. ‘Winner takes all’ copyright markets – the apparent status quo, benefiting the top end disproportionately
  3. What about the ‘middle’?

For the first section, Kenny breaks down how performers are paid, noting that it is difficult for the musical ‘middle’ to generate a full time income through royalty streams (or even music) alone. We also see the famous/apocryphal quote from Hunter S Thompson, and Kenny notes the ‘music industry is bad’.
Kenny rattles through the birth of copyright (Statute of Anne 1710; Bach vs Longman 1777) through to contemporary scholarship criticizing the status quo of the copyright debate: “Each side offers anecdotes, but no data”.
Townse in Frith and Marshall 2004:57 “Copyright protection involves a trade-off between cost and benefit”.
There are two opposing narratives;

  • Narrative A: strong copyright will ensure the continued production of culturally valuable works:
  • Narrative B: Copyright is an ineffective and inequitable mechanism for rewarding the majority of [music] composers and performers.

Industry stakeholders and lobbyists tend to support A; Academics tend to support B.
Narrative A characterized: the labels suggest “no copyright, no music industry”. Kenny suggests that this may or may not be true, but there is little evidence for it. The question is – would creators continue to create, absent copyright?
Narrative B characterised: copyright mostly favours high income musicians directly; it’s a winner-takes-all market.
Kenny now shows us the ‘Winner Takes It All” problem, via an old (1994) but still relevant PRS distribution chart. Of 21000 writers, only 85 people take 35% of the money; only a few hundred make anything close to a living wage [from PRS royalties].
Is it the Perfect Storm? There is an oversupply of ‘desirous and inexperienced’ creators (Mike Jones 2012:27). For every ‘hit’ there are many misses. As Jason Toynbee put it “to change this situation we may need to abolish capitalism” [JB: !].
To the core question: what about the middle? PRS has kindly shared more recent data with Kenny although he is unable to share it in full. He notes that although PRS membership has grown five-fold since 1994, the proportions of the distribution pyramids have not improved (indeed, Kenny says, the bottom of the pyramid has likely expanded given the many micro-payment artists that have entered the market). He implies that a re-thought distribution model might create more meaningful careers among the middle-level artists.
Royalty payments, for new songwriters, often represent a kind of ‘eureka’ moment where they realise that their work can be monetized. Copyright income is routinely channeled into creating new work. Kenny calls for deeper academic research into the needs and lives of the mid-range musicians, and to challenge the narrative of the music industry being divided in a binary of creators being only winners or losers.