Grassroots Musicians Have Just Been Dealt Another Blow

PRS, which collects and distributes artists' royalties, has announced a widely-criticised tariff for livestreams.
January 29, 2021, 11:55am
Two men busking in London during Covid-19 pandemic
Photo: Chris Bethell

We all know the grassroots music sector is Not Doing Well at the moment. From small venues and technical staff to the musicians themselves, the pandemic has decimated the already precarious sector.

The Music Venue Trust (MVT) has been vital in supporting these spaces; their #saveourvenues campaign was launched during the UK’s first national lockdown, and livestreamed fundraising events have been key. Many have been a huge success – in April, Frank Turner raised over £10,000 to save Southampton venue The Joiners.

However, this week, PRS – the organisation responsible for collecting and distributing artists’ royalties – announced a new tariff for livestreams. Their website states that the license is necessary for “UK Promoters or venues wishing to livestream a small-scale ticketed event originating in the UK”, but only if the songs being performed are part of the PRS repertoire.

Livestreams with a revenue below £250 will need to pay a flat rate of £22.50 for this licence, which doubles to £45 for revenues between £251 and £500. This means that for those hosting an online event with a revenue of £250 or less, a minimum of 9 percent will go to PRS. In comparison, physical concerts pay a tariff of 4.2 percent and can easily avoid paying the £15 flat fee.

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Backlash from the grassroots sector has been significant. In a statement, MVT said: “A fixed rate Tariff is not a mechanism by which [compensation for songwriters] will be achieved, and the methodology and rate proposed by PRS for Music will not result in grassroots songwriters being paid for their work.”

Meanwhile, Independent Venue Week has accused PRS of being “out of touch with our community”, saying that “this onerous new license … means less music and culture when it is needed most”.

During the pandemic, livestreamed concerts have been a lifeline for artists of all sizes, from Dua Lipa to your local open-mic-night regular. They are a way for venues and artists to survive at an incredibly difficult time, often alongside support from the MVT's Cultural Recovery Fund – which wasn't created with livestreaming tariffs in mind.

While the tariff is a well-intentioned attempt at ensuring songwriters receive fair compensation, its unilateral application is raising eyebrows. Livestreams with a revenue of under £500 are almost always going to be within the grassroots sector, where profit margins are already razor thin. So how does a minimum license fee of £22.50 support grassroots songwriters if it's creating a financial barrier for musicians streaming their own compositions?

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Speaking to VICE, PRS explained that, from their perspective: “With everything that goes into setting up ticketing and all the other aspects of staging a livestream, we cannot believe that a GBP 22.50 fee would be what prevents it from happening.”

What's especially hard to swallow is that PRS sought no consultation or negotiation before introducing the tariff. In contrast, the 2018 tariff adjustment for physical live music events arrived after three years of negotiations with members, industry bodies and licensees. Jason Dormon, MVT trustee and owner of the Tunbridge Wells Forum, feels that PRS has “created a very broad brush licence, poorly thought out and badly executed with dreadful timing. It’s rushed, and hurting those that they are supposedly representing.”

For musicians whose music is registered to PRS, the tariff means that after playing a livestream consisting of their own compositions, they have a minimum six-month wait until they receive their royalties – with an admin fee deducted. It's long, convoluted and unnecessary in the grassroots sector. Dormon suggests that if an artist is performing their own compositions they should be able to opt out of the tariff. PRS admits that “in cases where the performance constitutes only songs 100 percent written by the performer, it is circuitous to run part of the revenues through PRS, and we are looking into ways of simplifying the process during the pandemic”, citing internal rules and safeguards as hurdles to this.

Addressing the tariff difference between physical and online events, PRS told VICE that “the argument that online concerts are the same as physical concerts is simply untenable”, going on to explain that from a licensing perspective, livestreams are “a communication to the public by electronic means plus a reproduction and a synchronisation”, as well as being cheaper to run and harder to monitor when it comes to how many people one ticket admits to a show.

Of course the music industry believes songwriters should be fairly compensated, but not at the expense of the grassroots sector. Perhaps if PRS had committed to consulting and negotiating with other industry bodies, an arrangement that would benefit songwriters without negatively impacting the grassroots sector could have been reached. Instead, we have a tariff that – while introduced with the best intentions – has been met with confusion and mistrust.

@eloiseavbulmer