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Composers and Songwriters Face Growing Concerns for the Future

MU Live and Music Writers Official, Kelly Wood, discusses the “real fear that writers and composers will be suffering from the effects of this lockdown far beyond the reopening of other sectors across the industry”.

Published: 15 June 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM
Photo of man on sofa, writing on sheet of music, an acoustic guitar propped nearby
Some of the writing fraternity have gone from being incredibly and eclectically busy to feeling somewhat redundant. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The effects of the lockdown on the music industry have been well-documented. Amongst the cancelled work and uncertainty about the future, music lovers and fans have rallied round to support their favourite musicians, venues and organisations. Audiences are holding onto concert tickets for grassroots gigs, arena shows, musicals and orchestral performances, and there’s a lot of sympathy for performers whose tours have been grounded at vital points of their career.

The spotlight has largely fallen on those who normally grace our stages – musicians out front engaging with audiences and performing the music.

However, the COVID-19 situation is equally damaging for those who work behind the scenes – the song-writers, composers, arrangers and those who create the music. The Ivors Academy report an average drop in income of £24,970 per creator, based on results of a recent survey of their membership.

The closure of workplaces has led to cancellations and re-scheduling

Many writers and composers work independently – in isolation or electronically with others. Whilst the practicalities and logistics of the lockdown have not necessarily prevented that work from happening, many of the wider projects that commission and use the music have been affected.

Live performances in concert halls and theatres, studio recording sessions and media productions all normally present opportunities for writers, composers, arrangers and copyists. The closure of these workplaces has led to the cancellation, re-scheduling and on-hold status of a huge amount of pre-COVID work, not to mention the loss of additional opportunities that would normally have arisen during this period of time.

There are also many commercial song-writers whose work involves co-writing with featured artists. This kind of work often starts with writers meeting artists, trying to form an emotional connection and carrying out writing sessions together. It’s hard to create these new relationships online, but equally hard for writers to take a forced break from speculatively exploring new relationships.

Additionally, as is the case across all parts of the music industry, many freelance writers and composers do not qualify for any of the government’s financial support, and thus the sector is experiencing a very real economic crisis.

An impact that goes beyond the financial

Some of the writing fraternity have gone from being incredibly and eclectically busy – working across several diverse projects with short-, mid- and long-term projections – to feeling somewhat redundant.

Aside from the financial impact of this, it’s important also to consider the wider effects of having no creative deadlines on those who thrive on their work and the journey of a piece’s conception to its public performance or broadcast. Some writers are understandably feeling bereft and de-motivated, whilst others are optimistically creating a body of works that they hope to find a stage or platform for in more vibrant and musically healthy times.

There have also been some paid opportunities and funding projects that have arisen as a result of the lockdown, but naturally there’s not enough to go round.

Online gigs don’t work for everyone

Bands, singer-songwriters, instrumental soloists and other types of act who write and perform their own material have been hit hard. Many have explored online virtual performances but the effectiveness of these, in both financial and creative terms, is often determined by the level of act, the way they interact with their audience and how comfortable they are putting on a show from home.

In short, online gigs don’t work for everyone, and can’t feasibly be expected to replace real venues and stages.

For those commercially releasing their own material, difficult decisions have been faced as to whether to proceed with release dates and schedules in order to keep projects current, money coming in and to benefit from airplay, or whether to delay releases until live tours can go ahead to support them. The lockdown has really divided the strategic approach that’s required around an artist’s recorded and live work.

Growing concern for substantial decrease in future royalty distributions

Some areas of the industry responded quickly and efficiently to the financial crisis presented by lockdown. For example, PRS for Music reduced some processing turnaround times in a bid to deliver as many royalties to members as possible in the April distribution (the first following the lockdown).

Whilst this was a welcomed move for those whose work had seen an instant impact, there is growing concern around future distributions which will see a substantial decrease for many writers owing to the current lack of live activity and the cancellation or delay of media and theatrical projects. This is a double-blow for those whose income consists predominantly of songwriting royalties, which already leads to differing levels of income from one distribution to the next.

The PRS had also been conducting a review of the Classical Tariff following a consultation period. An increased royalty had been proposed, representing a much-needed pay rise for composers whose works are performed in concert halls, but this has now understandably been paused.

There’s a real fear that writers and composers will be suffering from the effects of this lockdown far beyond the reopening of other sectors across the industry. The amount of live activity alone that is going to need to be re-arranged – some gigs have already been bounced to their second rescheduled date – means that the industry is going to be playing catch-up with itself for the foreseeable future.

The Government must conduct a review of streaming royalties

Moving forward, the MU is pleased to be partnering with The Ivors Academy on some vital and pressing campaign work.

The loss of so much work across the industry has thrown into stark reality the level of artists’ income generated by streaming. Per stream royalty rates are far too low and overall the song is undervalued, receiving just 13-15% of revenue which is divided in many cases between writer and publisher.

The ‘Keep Music Alive’ campaign is calling for industry stakeholders to agree an equitable, sustainable and transparent model for royalty distribution in the streaming era. A petition has been set up urging the Government to conduct a review of streaming in order to ensure that the music ecosystem is transparent and fair.

Whilst there’s a lot of work to be done to progress these issues, working with The Ivors Academy means that our efforts and reach are redoubled. Watch this space for more joint initiatives later in the year.

You can act now by signing and sharing the petition to #FixStreaming and Keep Music Alive.

Stay up to date with news and issues for songwriters by joining the songwriters section. Sign up by editing your profile online, or getting in contact with your Regional Office.

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