Is Streaming just the new Home Taping?

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?

Nadine Shah

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?

3 thoughts on “Is Streaming just the new Home Taping?

  1. I’ve long written about The Horror of intangible Music. Some important points to consider [beyond the monetary shafting of the artist/content creator that was always the point of a label – hint, it’s the point of Capitalism] are these:
    1) I no longer have control over what I can listen to. The labels control what is and is not streaming according to their deals at any given time. Too bad if you want to hear Band X on the day after their licensing agreement with Label Y expires for Streaming Service Z.
    2) It effectively kills the secondary market for music. I’m the Post-Punk Monk. I’m all about hearing and collecting the music of the Post-Punk period. I can do this by buying the music on the secondary market when the primary market is not providing it. If there is not streaming agreement for a release from history you cannot hear it. The industry has long sought ways to eliminate the secondary market for music since they see no financial benefit in it. With intangible music, this becomes a reality, at least in the legal sense.
    3) Which brings me to my third bullet – the idea of reducing music to just another utility bill. The concept alone paints a dismally banal picture of music and the power it has to shape and reflect the human psyche! The very idea is insulting to me. The labels would love for everyone to pay $25 a month to stream anything they make available. Their manufacturing costs have just been reduced to zero. The streaming service foots the server bill. At the end of the month, I possess nothing and the label has just netted $25. How much of that reaches the artist is a topic for much speculation. Not forgetting that the labels will be able to dictate the terms of the licensing agreement with the end user. $25 a month now, but this will change as the labels see fit.
    4) Impermanence of culture. Records and CDs are an anthropological treasure that we can all partake in if we choose to. We can walk into a record store and see an obscure record we have never heard of that had nothing to do with a major label and buy it to discover what it can offer us. Independent music is already marginalized by major label culture. In an intangible music culture it is subject to musical genocide by lawyers and bankers. The digitization of our culture frightens me with regard to what future generations will be able to experience of our culture in the unimaginable years ahead. We still have books, sculpture, and arts from the vast array of human existence to study and reflect upon. Can art and culture persists across time as digital information?

    All of these thoughts haunt me in these times of catastrophic transition.

  2. I would argue that it’s worse for the artists than home taping… back in the day when I was an impecunious punk rocker I’d go to the local library and take out albums at 10p a week and tape them. The tapes would be passed around my equally skint mates, and we would each find things that we loved; bands who we came to follow and support by buying their records and attending their gigs.

    Streaming encourages people to use music as background ambience for life (probably why Ed Sheeran and Adele are so popular), as opposed to something to be enjoyed and considered in it’s own right. IMO the way music is presented digitally – without any physical form – encourages people to treat it as something that has no intrinsic value.

    1. Hi Jaz, completely agree with you. There was so much we could have put in the post, we even had a conversation about the library records like you said. Main point though was that teenagers taping records was ‘killing music’ when it was actually just fuelling our love of it and kept us buying records. Now, record companies and streaming services are not paying artists a fair deal, and have turned what were 3D physical products into, exactly as you say, background music. So who are the pirates now? Thanks for commenting.

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