A new music collection society for Wales?
A couple of weeks ago BBC Wales News reported on discussions at a Welsh Music Foundation (WMF) seminar in Caernarfon. The debate centred on the ongoing issue of whether Welsh-language music would be better served by an independent, autonomous royalty collection society than the existing Performing Right Society (PRS).
I'll break down some of the themes involved here, as it's a hugely complex issue that merits some explanation.
What does a collection society do?
There are two copyrights in recorded music: the recording itself and the song. We're talking here about the copyright in the song. Whenever a song is performed publicly or broadcast or streamed, that counts as a use of the copyrighted work and therefore the songwriter is due a payment. In the early years of the 20th century the PRS - a non-profit organisation - was set up to ensure that this exploitation of the song copyright was logged as accurately as possible, and payments were made to the songwriters.
As the music industry evolved, it became the norm that a broadcaster (or for that matter, shops or venues) bought a licence from the PRS for the right to play the songs registered with them. The PRS would then redistribute the money, after taking costs, to the songwriters, often via their publishers.
Ideally, this would be a platform for the accurate remuneration of songwriters whose works are played and broadcast, as the PRS employs a number of formulae to assess the amount of times each individual work has been played in a given time period. However - and this is where potential problems arise - there is only so much accuracy a finite organisation can achieve. There's a lot of guesswork involved; in the distribution of royalties there's significant guesswork involved.
What is particular to the Welsh-language music scene?
Until 2007, the PRS employed a formula that integrated BBC Radio Cymru's playlist into data gathered from a group of 50 local and regional radio stations, plus venues. Playlist data was averaged and payments were made accordingly. The inadvertent effect of this method was to over-estimate massively the number of times Welsh-language music was being played across the UK. In fact, the level of accuracy was less than 1%. Radio Cymru was the major outlet for Welsh-language music, and it was simply not being played anywhere else in the UK with the exception of a little on BBC Radio Wales and S4C.
In 2007 the PRS took the decision to address this anomaly. Since then, Welsh-language PRS members have seen an overall drop of about 90% - or almost £1.8 million - in their royalty payments as now it is Radio Cymru, BBC Radio Wales and S4C which provide the sole plays for their repertoire.
What was the response?
A few of the major players in the Welsh-language music scene formed an ad hoc collective - the Welsh Music Publishers and Composers Alliance - to combat this reduction and to raise with the PRS the impact their changes had made. As a result, the PRS was convinced to phase in the changes over three years, ameliorating to some extent the severity of the revenue cut.
In addition, the School of Music at Bangor University undertook a study called Building New Business Strategies for the Music Industry in Wales, which recommended a feasibility study be undertaken into the setting-up of an autonomous and independent licensing and collection society.
The resultant feasibility study was funded by the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) who asked the influential composers and publishers organisation Y Gynghrair to put the report out to tender.
The report, titled An assessment of the feasibility of establishing an independent music licensing and royalties collections agency for Wales, was authored by Deian ap Rhisiart and Arwel Elis Owen (now interim chief executive of S4C), working for Cambrensis Communications.
What did the report say?
Ap Rhisiart and Owen outlined a series of arguments - both financial and cultural - for a shift in the whole methodology for distributing royalties to Welsh-based songwriters.
Some of the main points they raised:
- "A national music licensing and royalties body may... help kick-start a music economy based on a successful publishing and recording industry."
- The BBC negotiates blanket licence agreements with the PRS centrally, meaning BBC Wales "is not enthusiastic for any change in the current licensing system".
- Music played on Radio Cymru gets a fee of 47 pence a minute, as it is part of the PRS's UK-wide formula that sees the channel in the same bracket as BBC local radio services in England.
- If Radio Cymru were to be on a national DAB slot, the fee would rise to £4.71 a minute - at least until the digital switchover.
- Radio in Wales, especially commercial stations, as a whole has moved away from Wales-based music to 'Anglo-American' repertoire, "thus bringing few economic benefits to local musicians".
- When Ireland's Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) broke away from PRS, income from licensing increased for local musicians.
- "Every collection society in Europe and worldwide are a member of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC)... This would mean an independent Welsh agency would then have direct representation on the international body, raising the international profile of Welsh music."
This is a highly condensed list, but you can read the whole report here.
The authors point repeatedly to a perceived lack of will to change or improve:
"It was the tone of the responses by many of our contributors that convinced us that a strategic shift was needed in attitudes to the music scene. There is no reason for the UK licensing agencies or the broadcasters in Wales to change the current arrangements. They are mutually content with the corporate blanket agreements. They express concern at the resulting situation but are not disposed to change the licensing arrangements or editorial priorities to improve the impact of their public funding on the Welsh music economy."
What is the PRS's response?
The PRS itself has responded strongly against the possibility of an independent Wales-based collection society.
"PRS for Music will always look to serve all of its members based in Wales and is proud to do so," they told me. "We will assist those involved with the analysis of the feasibility of a specific Welsh collection society, purely for Welsh language members and restricted to negotiating broadcast royalties as outlined in the report. However, PRS for Music does not believe this will benefit Welsh music, does not believe it has the support of the entire Welsh writer membership and strongly contends that the economics and complexities of starting a new collection society would be prohibitive to its creation."
What are those complexities?
A Welsh collection society would model itself on the IMRO system, whereby it acts like a independent body, accurately gauging plays of music across Welsh music broadcasters, having a reciprocal agreement with PRS through CISAC and distributing royalties. However, Wales is not politically or culturally devolved entirely from the rest of the UK.
The BBC has a blanket licence with the PRS centrally, not devolved to BBC Wales. Hence, while the BBC's PRS licence takes care of IMRO's members through CISAC, I'd imagine that the BBC would require both a licence with the PRS and the new Wales-only society. It has a duty to deliver content to Radio Cymru, and would have to buy the appropriate licence for that repertoire.
If the new society was to choose not to act as an Wales-only independent body and instead act in parallel with the PRS representing its members in the UK as a devolved body, it would require a close and mature in-house arrangement between both bodies in the UK. Although initially the plan for the new society would be to concentrate on broadcasters, in future years it could choose to address pubs, clubs, venues and other commercial outlets playing music, and this potentially could provide a problem, as this dual-society system is unprecedented.
So, either the society will exist inside CISAC as a independent organisation and experience those inherent problems, or it acts as a UK organisation and run into a separate set of problems.
The take-up or interest in this issue is debated. Y Gynghrair have 400 stakeholders on their database, of whom a small percentage attend meetings. The PRS estimates that it has around 2,000 songwriters in Wales. It may be that there's a small number of regularly-played artists on Radio Cymru who have seen their income fall dramatically, but the majority have seen a more minimal impact from the PRS royalty reassessment. Is there the appetite for a large-scale revolution in licences and collections?
Y Gynghrair is holding an open general meeting on 7 November to discuss the issue and the report. Depending on the outcome of that report, it may be that an independent collection society will move to being discussed by WAG and its advisory boards. From then, who knows? But one thing this debate may achieve in the longer term is an awareness of the frailty of the PRS's monitoring systems.
It seems that all parties are aware that improvements in the current system would be desirable. A new collection agency would address some of those issues but would create its own problems, legally and logistically.
I emphasise again that this is - believe it or not - a highly condensed examination of just some of the main issues, but it's a very important topic for Wales and its music. The decisions made about it have concrete knock-on effects for music here, whichever way it goes. We'll keep you updated.
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