Should Musicians Get Paid?

by , under Arts, Economics, Technology

As part of the book I’m writing at the moment I’ve been reading and thinking quite a lot about the idea of what ‘property’ is, and how this relates to the arts – and music in particular.

Just the other day a new legal ruling was passed that ensured that ageing crooners like Sir Cliff Richard can still claim royalties for songs they recorded (not actually wrote) for 70 years. Cliff and others have been campaigning for this for some time, though some of their responses ring a little hollow for those of us who’ve done a little more work than Mick Jagger:

“Obviously the record business is not what it was, so people don’t earn as much as they used to. [The royalties] can extend their lives and the lives of their families who inherit their songs.”

Others have been far more skeptical, arguing that the ruling will only benefit the very few – like Jagger and Richards – and could serve to stifle freedom of expression, with older works remaining in copyright for so much longer.

Here’s my question – which I mean very genuinely, and would love to hear opinions from people who know better than I: to what extent should musicians get paid?

The historical stuff I’m reading paints perhaps very different picture of musicianship from that we see in Jagger and Richards. In the pre-recording era, it was impossible to ‘own’ a song in the way it is now. A song was not your property. Indeed, most musicians, from what I can gather, played variations on standards that they had inherited from other musicians – and thus existed by very much drawing on the open pool of song knowledge that existed in communities.

That pool has been enclosed and privatised, and musicians – from what Jagger is saying – should now expect to have their careers in music pay well into old age. Clearly, without investment so much musical innovation would not have been possible. But is it really right for songs to remain ‘owned’ by song-writers in perpetuity?

My hunch is that what the digital music revolution may have precipitated is a partial return towards the historic pattern: musicians making money through performance. I personally think they – and other artists – should have a right to be paid for their work, but that very long copyrights are, in the end, unhelpful. But I’d be really interested to know what others who may be in the business think about it, because I’m really not sure I’m right.

(PS – congrats to Iain Archer for having one of his songs as the opening track on the current UK number 1 album! He should be paid. Forever 😉 )


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  1. Daniel

    Being influenced by some of the same thinkers (Hyde and Bey for example) and also having friends who make their living with music (also some of the same friends), my thoughts are predictably similar to yours. I need laws to stay far enough away from our creative capital to both allow for the future works based on that capital and to keep business pariahs from having incentives to insert themselves into creative endeavors they have no place in. I also don’t want other pariahs to rip off honest hard working artists. In general, the fact that people who are independently wealthy are the ones pushing for these copyright extensions speaks for itself. I treat it as a separate issue from those around how art has changed in the last few centuries. The former is more of a legal/business issue long since divorced from any artistic integrity discussion. The latter is a much bigger nut to crack, and I think writers like those I mentioned are a good place to start when trying to begin thinking or discussing it.

  2. Daniel

    There is a really good web video series being produced right now around these issues. I don’t have time to find it right now but will look again tonight and post a link for ya…

  3. KB

    OK, ta. Interesting note on the WU LYF website:

    The dolla raised through the L Y F membership scheme goes to enable the baby boys of WU LYF total creative self-sufficiency, an independence free from the shackles of monetary driven interests, free from the lonesome kids game.

    Seems in a weird way that they want to become the next ‘independently wealthy ones’ that you’re talking about. Look forward to linkage when you can find it.

  4. Joe

    Kierkegaard liked to say that Churches would only really be the Church if the doors were all shut and there were no paid ministers (very bad paraphrase there by me). I’d propose the motion that music would be better if musicians were not paid. At all. Ever.

    The reasoning for this crazy notion is that we have an idea that musical ability is rewarded. But the cold reality is that popularity it its own driver, that the richest are not the most talented.

    To do something because you have something inside which forces you to do it, even if you can never make a living from it, is surely the sign of a great poet, musician or artist. Monetising people labels them, so football players, rock stars and company bosses are seen to be the most valuable in society – whereas those who clean the toilets (who are actually one of the few things that keeps a society or company functioning) are one of the least. Why should we participate in a society that says that popularity inherited from something you once did 40, 50 or 60 years ago gives you financial reward today?

  5. Massimo Zeppetelli

    Wow, this is exactly what my dissertation was on – I even referred to Cliff Richard! At the time I wrote it (2 years ago), the motion got rejected, but unsurprisingly, probably with tons of bribes and fierce lobbying, it has now gone through.

    I believe creativity first, money second. I’m far too altruistic to think otherwise. Scrap the copyright extension.

    And yes, there was no such thing as copyright in the past with music. People ripped each other off all the time. It’s not like we copyright our conversations and opinions is it. Is there a difference between an opinion in conversation and a ‘musical opinion’ with what to do with the limited tones and chord progressions that are regurgitated?

  6. KB

    Thanks Massimo – do you have any research or stuff you wrote on ‘there was no such thing as copyright in the past.’ I’d love to read it if you have some, especially if focused on music. Sounds like a great dissertation!

  7. Luke Leighfield

    Hey Kester! Tom Price sent me here and I thought I’d offer my two cents.

    As a musician attempting to make a living from my music (you can see my website above if you want to see/hear what I do) I have to strongly disagree with those who are saying that musicians shouldn’t be able to own the copyright for their songs for 70+ years, or even longer.

    I’ve spent the last five years doggedly touring the UK, getting paid minimal money, all in an attempt to accumulate enough cash to pump into my next record, which is then illegally downloaded by many, and then the cycle starts again. Whilst I don’t write songs simply to make money, in order to be a songwriter (i.e. spend a substantial portion of time actually writing songs) I need to have enough cash to get by. Presently that means I am working around four different jobs, from the time I wake until the time I sleep, just so that I can fund the release of my latest album.

    Now I’m not complaining about the fact that it’s hard, because I love what I do, but I do hope that at some point it will relent slightly if I get a break, like getting a song on a soundtrack or signing a decent record deal, thereby receiving enough money so that I can quit my other jobs and fully dedicate myself to making music full-time. I don’t want to be working multiple jobs in order to sustain my career for my lifetime – at some point I hope to have a family and not work 14-hour days!

    But for this to happen, I’ll need to be able to rely on the royalties that I will hopefully make from music through syncs, radio play, etc., which I consider to be a just reward for the huge amount of work that I’ve put in in my early years to get my career off the ground. I get the impression that people in this thread are saying that myself (and other artists) are not allowed to garner anything from their hard work in the long term. Is that fair? It certainly doesn’t seem fair!

    Again, I emphasise that I’m not making music solely for the purposes of making money (I hope you would agree that my music isn’t trite, banal pop) but like you say, everyone should be allowed to make a living from their work, and making a living from music is bloody hard work!

    Furthermore, why shouldn’t I be able to keep having these royalties until I die? Or possibly even further? If my Dad were the owner of a big business, then I imagine that I would inherit it, because of the hard work he put into growing it from nothing. Why is this not the same with my music? If I write a hit song, why can’t my children benefit from it when I’m gone?

    Anyway, these are just my thoughts and I too am interested in the debate. Love ‘Other’ by the way!

    Luke

  8. canal ways

    hey there,
    I suppose it’s a wee bit like asking if you should get paid for writing your book and be able to keep the copyright for years to come?

    If you published your book and people could download it for free and started stealing your ideas leaving you to only make to make some money from selling t-shirts or doing speaking engagements around the country it wouldn’t be fair to you as you having to do extra work on top of the work you’ve done in writing the book. Yet that’s the way it seems to be for musicians/bands at the moment.

    Personally I think that a musician/artist should be paid for the work they have put into it…
    BUT (and maybe this is just me) the ideas of ‘rights’ becomes more complicated and cloudy if you bring the Christian aspect into it all because its about Someone who gave up his rights….and there is gift and grace involved.
    Like I’m not sure how anyone can copyright a praise song. It’s like saying its my song and not for the community… Can’t see David writing a Psalm and then copyrighting it. It feels like it has been turned into a commodity

    Dave

  9. Luke Leighfield

    Really interesting point about praise/worship songs, Dave. I don’t know much about the business side of that world, but I’ve always felt like it should work differently to the secular side of things in terms of money. Again, those writers should obviously be able to earn money from their craft, but I would imagine that people buy the records of Christian worship leaders for substantially different reasons to that of ‘secular’ artists.

  10. Matybigfro

    What I find fascinating is the strength of these idea’s, some of which have very weak validity or persuasion but that we have just bought into because someone made them up ages ago. Personally I tend to find the ideas of Property and ownership disturbing allot of the time especially they way they are just accepted as true and compelling. I always loved the idea that other indigenous cultures have about land and ownership ( or lack of it).

    More over what I find today is these flawed arguments of the strong and tight fisted are pushed allot in similar discussions (barrage arguments) above. For instance by arguing for there right to riches from their music these artists avoid fighting in solidarity with the rest of the ageing population for fair/generous pentions, care provisions and heath services – if they can keep affording better private care wh should they. In the same way I think inherited wealth is equally, if not more toxic for society. Again the inailiable right that wealth belongs to the wealthy and should be transferred with genetics prevents people from building fairer society’s and rewards greed and selfishness. Why try and create a equal playing field of opportunity for all to succed if you can strive to succeed over and above others to secure a better place for your genetic code in the future through inherited wealth.

    In the same way we simply accept ownership of idea’s, story’s, words and sounds where wimpy these are a strange side effect of recent techknowlegies. I see no difference between books and CD’s, in the time before, stories were shared by memory and ownership was whoever was sharing the story now, much in the same way for idea’s, philosophies and songs/music. I think the current way’s that we steward these things because of these now old technologies (printing/recording) are unsustainable and irreperably ruptured by the new technology of the internet. Hopefully this will lead to new more healthy idea’s and ways of looking after these treasures eventually. Maybe this will go hand in hand with more generous and sustainable ways of looking after ourselves.

    My cynical side says that’s bullshit and we could end up even more fucked up

  11. KB

    I suppose it’s a wee bit like asking if you should get paid for writing your book and be able to keep the copyright for years to come?

    It’s exactly like that, but I’m interested in the music side for reasons that’ll become clear in the book forthcoming. On the book side though, I am completely for a system of limited copyright. ‘The republican two-step’ as Lewis Hyde calls it is ‘first a private compensation, then a public benefit.’

    I think this is spot on. A long enough copyright to earn back the appropriate private compensation, but then a release into the commons for public benefit. Remember, the root of the word ‘republic’ is res publica – ‘the public thing’, and it concerns me that we are reducing what is held for public benefit down and down, all driven by private ownership concerns for private financial benefit.

    The commodification issue is also massively important. Who can say where a song came from? Is any song purely original? As is well known, Homer disappears after the very first line:

    Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story

    It seems to me that we’ve lost that. We’ve created artists who’ve been made fabulously wealthy – but only a small number of them, while the rest have to do their best in the system that offers much promise, but is delivering so little. The cost of this privatised, commodified artistic set up is, I think, culturally and communally quite high. Yes, all who labour should receive appropriate compensation. But forever? For a song that perhaps took a few days to craft? Hmmm… really don’t think so.

  12. linus

    It seems to me this comes down to value and reward. If our society values excellent music highly enough, it should pay people enough money to devote themselves to it. If not, then people will have to persue that interest outside of the time they devote to earning a living. What society shouldn’t be allowed to do is have its cake and eat it – exploit people by not paying them properly for their skill and expertise and effort, whilst still enjoying the benefit of it. As Matty says, the same is true of clean toilets – we clearly value them, but we shouldn’t exploit people to get them.

    In the past, i think that maybe, broadly speaking, musicians were employed or supported by a community to provide a valuable service to the community. But also, plenty of people provided music to their community as part of their contribution to the community that they belonged to, without it being their primary role or job within that community.

    I think musicians predominantly used the commonly available music (as opposed to creating their own) partly cos it was easier, but also partly because the community they were serving valued tradition and excellence. Now we are a more individualistic society and we value novelty and personal expression. So the artists who want to be full-time musicians have to sell a commodity rather than a service because there isn’t so much community to support them and because the society-of-individuals predominantly wants something new rather than an excellent version or re-working of something that already exists. Also, individuals want recorded music to listen to in their own homes rather than performed music to listen to together, so this requires the commodification of music. If new technology is forcing musicians to focus on performance more than recording as a revenue stream then maybe they can help lead us as a society back to a more communal way of living.

    There are exceptions to this shift from community to commodity – musicians who work for an orchestra and some folk musicians are predominantly supported by the region they live in and work with a pre-existing body of material, and certainly there are still communities served by amatuer musicians in the traditional way (a good example is the folk musicians who gather at the Cumberland Arms in Newcastle, which gets a mention in one of Kester’s books)

    As for the ethics of the present available remuneration for musicians, well, i know plenty of incredible musicians who don’t earn their living from their music, and i agree that earning a living from music is incredibly hard. But i think it almost always has been for almost everyone. I don’t think anyone has a right to earn their living from music, but i do think people have a right to be paid if others are enjoying or using the fruit of their labours (he says whilst listening to Luke Leighfield’s latest album, streamed free from his website). The argument is then about how much that labour is worth. For a performance, this is fairly straightforward – we can work out an appropriate hourly rate for a skilled professional’s time, taking into account overheads and travel expenses etc and come to an agreement. For an original creation its much harder – its not the “few days to craft” that matter, its the lifetime of learning and practicing and listening that are brought to bear in those few hours of creation. How do you work out appropriate remuneration for that?