Let’s cast our minds back to the days when music was only available in physical formats.
In the post punk world, our listening appetites were keen, and our record collections certainly grew, but the uphill trajectory of saving for new purchases couldn’t always keep pace with the ever-growing list of ‘wants’. So, as it wasn’t always possible to afford all the records that we really, really wanted on the week of release, we had a sort of emergency back-up system. It worked like this – If you bought record A and your friend bought record B, then cassette copies could be made and swapped as a sort of stop-gap part-ownership scheme in the interim. To be honest, it wasn’t just albums we recorded, we were taping off the radio, we were hovering over pause buttons during Peel sessions and even taped TV shows.
The nation’s new hobby hadn’t gone unnoticed by the major record companies. In the 1980s, the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), a music industry trade group, launched their ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ campaign. What they really meant was that they were worried that a few people making tapes for their mates might start to take a tiny chip out of their enormous, bloated profits, and that we were getting way too comfortable with the emergency back-up procedure – which admittedly had now become more of a standard procedure. Or maybe they were worried that the whole of the UK would somehow all phone each other up and collectively decide to buy just one copy of a new album between us all and then pass it around taping it until everybody had their own cassette copy. The campaign, fronted by a scary looking skull and crossbones logo alongside threatening message, made us feel like outlaws every time we cracked open a new cassette. Then again, it was meant to.
Not everyone thought home taping was such a terrible idea. From his position as industry irk-er in chief, Malcolm McLaren oversaw the release of the Bow Wow Wow cassette single C-30 C-60 C-90 Go, which was manufactured with a blank side and encouraged the owner to use it to tape their own music. The stunt was seen as supporting home taping, and the band were encouraged never to do anything like that again.
Free access to music was a major label’s worst nightmare. A future world in which the general public suddenly had complete unfettered access to their prized catalogue of millions of songs, without the expense of ever buying anything, forever.
In 1978, a million selling album like Parallel Lines would have generated a cool £2,990,000 gross. Allowing for inflation, that would be equivalent to around £15,000,000 in 2022.
These days instead of handing over cash for a physical product, today’s streaming services take their revenue from subscribers and advertisers then pay out per track streamed. Spotify offers roughly £3 per 1,000 streams, and for a million streams the standard pay out would be around £3,000.
Under the current system, artists who have arrived there via a major record label will receive about 15% of this streaming income, (including PRS and MCPS). The streaming service would keep around 30% for themselves before paying the record labels approximately 55%. Also, the income for streaming albums is not calculated in the same way as old-fashioned physical sales; streams are divided by up to 100 to give the ‘CD sales equivalent’.
Last year the BBC reported that ‘The BPI argued that streaming worked in artists’ favour’ – with 2,000 artists set to achieve 10 million streams this year, the equivalent of selling 10,000 CDs, or making about £29,000. It warned unpicking the current system could damage investment in new music.’
So isn’t streaming just the new home taping? But from the other side of the fence? Of course the BPI argues that streaming is ‘working in the artists’ favour’, which is probably just some truly modern way of saying that it’s actually working more in the record companies favour and please stop going on about it. They’re not making pirate face logos now are they?
Last year a committee of MPs backed by over 200 musicians called for ‘a complete reset’ of the way streaming royalties are distributed, and Nadine Shah told the committee she had been forced to move back in with her parents because ‘earnings from my streaming are not significant enough to keep the wolf away from the door’.
In 2020, UK record labels earned £736.5 million and Nadine can’t pay her rent? Who are the pirates now then?