Spotify recently announced that its free music streaming service wouldn't be quite so free anymore, with subscription-free listening now reduced from 20 hours to 10. While there might be a groan from those who signed up for the service all that time ago, what exactly does it mean for the musicians behind the tracks?
The music industry is a complicated beast, so we had a chat with Featured Artists Coalition CEO, Mark Kelly (pictured right with Marillion band mate Steve Hogarth) to shed some light on the subject. He told us:
"It's a difficult one to judge. I can understand why Spotify is doing what it's doing and why it's doing it as there's a lot of pressure on the brand as it's trying to get into the US market. Our main criticism of Spotify is the deals that it's made with the labels under Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA). That means that the artists have no idea what the details of the agreements are but we very much doubt that the labels will be sharing all the money that they make off the back of them with the musicians that provide the content in the first place."
The advent of downloading and streaming music has changed the face of the music industry forever, often at a cost to the people that actually produce the sounds. The way that the business runs has failed to keep pace with technological change. In the wake of reduced royalties and illegal downloads, the Featured Artist Coalition (FAC) was set up to campaign for the protection of UK performers' and musicians' rights.
"The original idea was born from the Music Managers Forum (MMF). Some of the managers found that record companies and government bodies wouldn't readily include them in relevant discussions about the music industry. However, they soon realised that if they had artists on board, it would open doors and that's where the idea for the FAC came from.
"In the early days we decided that we would do it all ourselves and not have any managers involved as we didn't want to come across as a mouthpiece for the MMF. Although the MMF created the FAC, we very quickly made efforts to make it clear that we were a seperate entity (although we do still work with them as well as the record companies and the Musicians' Union). The fact that we operate separately makes it challenging because, as musicians, most FAC members have full-time careers outside of the organisation."
Even as CEO of the FAC, Kelly is no exception when it comes to full-time graft outside of his Coalition duties. He's best known as the long-time keyboard maestro from prog rockers Marillion and has also just completed the London Marathon, in case that wasn't enough to be getting on with. Like Kelly, many of the board members are well-known artists, including Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien, Blur drummer Dave Rowntree, singer Sandie Shaw and left-leaning singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. Having such well-known faces on board is certainly a help when it comes to getting the message across to a potentially apathetic public, but what exactly is that message?
Radiohead's Ed O'Brien, Sandie Shaw and Pink Floyd's Nick Mason
"The FAC has a number of different aims. One is for there to be better deals for musicians, so that the artists actually get a fair share of the money that's made from their work. What we're striving for is transparency and proper accountability. The music industry has always been a bit of a murky world - traditionally artists have had to audit record companies to find out what's really going on and things have got worse rather than better even though the technology available to track plays has improved. Because of the way that deals are done these days, with lots of NDAs, it's difficult for artists to find out under what terms they're being paid."
One of the ways that the FAC is trying to achieve better rights for artists is by lobbying for changes in legislation. The organisation was recently invited to make a submission to the Hargreaves Review. This is an independent review being carried out by Professor Ian Hargreaves on behalf of the UK government that's looking into the Intellectual Property system and how it can better drive growth and innovation. One of the key aspects of the FAC's submission is the proposal for some sort of collective licensing system, as the BBC has, where you pay a set subscription and get access to all of the different content.
"Subscriptions are definitely the way forward" confirms Kelly.
As well as active lobbying, the FAC also aims to offer a positive influence in other areas, particularly where young, up-and-coming musicians are concerned. Education is important and it's something that many of the FAC members are actively involved in
"Some members of the FAC don't really care much for policy, but many of the artists are involved in giving advice to young musicians. I've been to Brighton Institue of Modern Music a few times and talked to students about the FAC and about the Marillon do-it-yourself model [like many other artists, the band also sells its music direct through its own website]."
One of the biggest successes that the FAC has had so far is with its "on air, on sale" campaign. In days gone by, a track would make its debut on the radio, remain on heavy rotation for around six weeks before the single was released with a huge fanfare. The fans would then all go out and buy the single as soon as they could, pushing up profits, and pushing the song up the charts. However, those days are gone.
"That business model doesn't work any more. The idea of releasing something on the radio and it not being available to buy is ridiculous. If people hear a song and they can't buy it through the proper means then they'll just go and download it for free from a torrent site. So, we were very much behind the idea of getting the labels to agree not to release stuff to the radio stations unless it was actually available to buy. Several of the major labels have signed up to it already, and although it's still early days, it should make for an even playing field".
Although sales of physical products, such as CDs and records are still significant, the music industry continues to move towards a largely download-based model, and its something that the FAC is keen to address.
"I think that physical sales (i.e. CDs) will continue to decline until they become a specialist interest, like buying vinyl. I think there will always be money made from physical sales, but not the kind of money that was made 10 years ago.
"For most artists that are signed to labels, it's likely that their output will be subject to the same terms as the physical products. In our case, the royalities that Marillion receive from downloads from iTunes aren't very much because of all the deductions that are in place from when records and CDs were the biggest sellers (such as deductions for packaging). That's where the FAC is calling for more fairness in these new digital deals. We realise that there's less money to go around, but that doesn't mean that the artists should get squeezed even more.
"We [Marillion] used to make a fairly large proportion of our income through royalites - that's gone down over the years, but has been replaced by other things. Merchandising and touring are now what bring in the most money for us. And we sell a lot directly through our website. We're like a self-contained business, so there's no middle man."
It seems clear that there's a lot of work to be done in terms of contract law between the labels and their artists in order to catch up with the new digital landscape of the music industry. So, what can services like Spotify actually do to make things fairer for the musicians?
"We think that the labels could do more to get the artists involved. That's what would give Spotify (and other sites) the edge over the torrent sites. I think that if fans know that the artists are involved then they'd be more willing to pay.
"Spotify has done deals with the four major labels, but we don't know what the terms are, as they're under NDA. We know that in most cases, the artists get paid fairly tiny amounts but to understand how we're being paid would really help.
"As a consumer, I really like Spotify and I pay for a subscription. I think it's good value and it's a great service. I also really like the Pandora service in America [currently US-only]. Apart from the fact that it's churning a large amount of dollars back into the music industry over there, it's effectively a radio station, a bit like Last.fm. It's very good at suggesting stuff to you that you might like. That sort of service is great because it turns people onto new music which is always going to be a good thing."
When it comes to downloading music, some people pay for it, and some don't. Some of us use reputable free streaming services, while others opt for illegal downloads from torrent sites. Whichever option you choose is up to you, and while we would never condone nicking copyrighted content, we'd be hard-pushed to find someone that had never bent the rules, whether that's by illegally downloading a track or watching a pirated video. What we do know is that by using services such as Spotify, at least the artists are getting some of the profits made by the site, even if there's still scope for negotiating a better deal for the musicians. In short, we're happy to pay a subscription fee, as long as that guarantees access to a wide range of tracks and as long as the money actually makes its way into the pockets of the people making the music.
We couldn't let slip the opportunity of asking a professional rocker about the technology that he uses at home. So, is Kelly an Apple fan or an Android man?
"I just bought an iPad the other day which I've been playing with but I've still got my Vaio, so I'm torn now because the first thing I noticed is that the iPad doesn't support Flash which is slightly concerning. But I see it as more of a mobile device that's a satellite of the desktop or laptop machine at home. I've also got an iPhone 4, so I'm covered, Apple-wise.
"For music, I like Forte [a professional desktop music creator] and I use Windows 7 on stage, which some people can't believe, but I'm quite happy with that.
"I love using Garageband on the iPad - it's fantastic. You can touch a key and slide your finger up and it'll bend the note up and you can do that with two different fingers on two notes at the same time and move them at different intervals, which is something you cannot do on anything else and it sounds great. I've never heard anything like it before - I'll definitely be using that on our next album."
You heard it here first. We wonder how many other bands will be using Garageband on their next albums?
Are you a Spotify subscriber or do you get your music for free and does it matter to you how the artists get paid? Let us know in the comments.