Have you watched a music video online any time recently? If you have, then you’re in good company. In the UK alone billions of music videos are viewed every year mainly on platforms such as YouTube. Yet, despite the unbelievable popularity of watching music videos online, they contribute a tiny share - just 3.2 per cent - of the income generated by recorded music – only half as much as is generated by cool, but venerable and still niche, vinyl records.
The good news is that the music industry is growing again because it innovated and radically altered its business model to make every song instantly available either for free, supported by advertising, or as part of a subscription - and UK revenues rose by more than 10 per cent last year as a result. Nonetheless, total revenues remain significantly down on the peak years of some 20 years ago. The big problem is that a lack of clarity in old European regulations lets tech giants make large amounts of money from records without paying fair royalties to the artists that wrote or played them.
This so called “safe harbour” from liability means that sites can provide a vast global jukebox of music whilst arguing they don't even need to negotiate a licence to do so. These out-of-date regulations have been acting like chewing gum blocking up the jukebox's coin slot. They skew the playing field on which digital music services compete and they undermine the ability of record labels to give the next talented artist that all-important break.
On Thursday there is a crucial, once-in-a-generation vote in the European Parliament to fix this problem. Article 13 of the draft Copyright Directive clarifies what case law has already, sensibly, concluded: that safe harbours were never intended to allow big businesses to make money from actively hosting music without paying for it. This draft still allows sites to retain safe harbours – but only if they use widely-available technology to ensure, as far as is possible, that copyrighted works are not on the site if a licence is not agreed.
The US tech lobby has been using its enormous reach and resources to try to whip up an alarmist campaign by users, disingenuously crying "censorship" and claiming this will "break the internet" or "ban memes". These baseless scare tactics deserve to fail. It isn't censorship to allow artists the right to choose to be paid for their work. The right to an income provides the basic artistic freedom for musicians to be what they have always been - rebels and revolutionaries, entrepreneurs, counter-cultural campaigners, our conscience and our inspiration. Memes will continue to flood our Instagram feeds over an internet that won't break, any more than the last time the tech lobby cried wolf to oppose creators' rights. Maybe it is time for the tech companies just to say what they mean: “we prefer to make billions of dollars out of music and other content without paying the people who make it.”
Preserving the unbalanced status quo is not the way forward. MEPs have the opportunity this week to allow creativity and technology to flourish together, based on freely negotiated, undistorted licence deals. For the sake of the next Dua Lipa or Stormzy and the next Spotify, let's hope they seize it and support Article 13.
Geoff Taylor, Chief Executive BPI & BRIT Awards