skip to main content

Working to Protect the Rights and Royalties of Composers

Composers need to be aware of rights grabs. MU Deputy General Secretary Naomi Pohl reflects on how the Musicians’ Union and its members can fight back.

Photo ofNaomi Pohl
By Naomi Pohl Published: 26 December 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM

Members of the MU who compose music for TV, film, videogames and other media may be aware of the threat of a rights-grab by the Discovery Network, which hit the press internationally.

The network, parent platform of channels such as Animal Planet and TLC, planned to require composers to agree to a total buy-out of their rights, meaning that they would not receive any music royalties via PRS – or the equivalent international performing rights societies – when their works were broadcast.

A threat to composers’ livelihoods

Composer Michael Giacchino likened Discovery’s plan to that of a gig economy company such as Uber, where workers are offered paltry per-job fees on zero hours contracts. He said the plan would have meant a 90% drop in income for composers and commented that Discovery’s plans would “not only affect composers. It would dramatically affect the income of musicians, recording engineers, studios and affect the purchase of music gear, music and sample software”.

Essentially, the Discovery Network was threatening to engage composers on a US ‘work for hire’ arrangement, which means the music copyright in commissioned works belongs to the commissioner rather than the writer. This is a major threat to composers’ livelihoods and the fundamentals of copyright, which should enable authors to benefit financially from the use of their works.

Music royalties sustain composers

Graham Davies, CEO of the Ivors Academy, explained the impact on composers worldwide: “This has created such a strong reaction and fear because these back-end royalties sustain the composer. While there is some protection in the UK industry from PRS having an exclusive performing right assignment, composers are being pressured to sign contracts that undermine this. We must reverse this situation by educating and empowering composers to say no to these deals and stand up for their rights.”

We understand that PRS for Music has written to Discovery and some other broadcasters to remind them that any attempts to obtain performing rights from its members would be unenforceable. Composers on the MU’s Music Writers’ Committee have told us over the past decade that their income from media work has decreased significantly. Until the Discovery bombshell, the primary issue in the UK has been the increasing prevalence of package deals where the composer is given a lump sum budget to create the music. The budget is for the creation of the recording, so the composer is required to deliver more than the score for the soundtrack. They also have to use their pot of money to pay for studio time and engage session musicians.

The budgets have been squeezed more and more and this leads to less work for session musicians, and smaller fees for composers. In extreme cases, composers face the choice of electronically producing the music to ensure they receive a fee, or surrendering their fee in favour of recording with musicians. As with any deal, the fact that composers will accept bad deals or low budgets perpetuates the issue. But the bargaining power lies with the commissioner.

Composers’ rights are at risk

Discovery backed down on its proposal following global pressure from composers and representative bodies, and is still paying for its collective licences. However, its attempt to buyout music rights signals that deals for composers are at risk of diminishing further unless we draw a line in the sand.

Prior to starting at the MU, I worked for the Writers’ Union negotiating deals for TV script writers. Those minimum terms agreements negotiated with the BBC, ITV and other broadcasters guarantee a significant upfront commissioning fee, as well as repeat and reuse fees, plus royalties via collective licensing. Composers are authors and should be getting similarly favourable deals. The upfront commissioning fee should cover the time spent working on the music as well as the grant of rights for an initial broadcast. At present, the fees paid to composers are in many cases insufficient to cover the labour, let alone the creative input and any rights package.

Representing composers in negotiation

The only way to address this issue is through collective action. As a union with real clout and good industrial relations with UK broadcasters, we can lead the way and represent composers in negotiation. This is something we will be working in partnership with the Ivors Academy on. Watch this space.

As our founder Joseph Williams said “The union we require is a protecting union, and one that will protect us from amateurs, protect us from unscrupulous employers and protect us from ourselves.” This is a good opportunity to inform our composer and songwriter members that experienced MU Official Kelly Wood is now looking after our Music Writers’ Section.

If you need advice or want to get involved in our work in this area, you can reach Kelly at writers@theMU.org

Photo ofNaomi Pohl
Thanks to

Naomi Pohl

Naomi Pohl is Deputy General Secretary at the Musicians’ Union. She has worked in the arts sector in the UK for nearly 20 years representing creators and performers. Since joining the MU in 2009, she has championed the rights of musicians, songwriters and composers working across TV and film, the recorded music industry, in education, orchestras and theatre. Naomi is currently involved in a high profile campaign for improved streaming royalties for performers (#FixStreaming) in conjunction with The Ivors Academy. Since the #MeToo movement started Naomi has been leading the Union’s Safespace service and the Union’s campaign to tackle sexual harassment in the music industry.

View profile

Continue reading

Silhouette of a person holding up their hands in a heart shape, against a stadium audience at a live music event.

New Recovery Fund Opens in Northern Ireland to Support Individuals Working in the Arts and Creative Sectors

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) and the Department for Communities (DfC), have today (Wednesday 15 September) opened a new recovery funding programme, co-designed to support individuals in the Arts and Creative sectors retain valuable skills.

Published: 23 September 2021

Read more about New Recovery Fund Opens in Northern Ireland to Support Individuals Working in the Arts and Creative Sectors