Copyright collective PRS launch ‘Online Live Concert’ license at expense of the British music scene

Joe Weaver, is a Music Manager and Secretary of the YCL East of England branch.

In a country where live music has mostly been on pause for the the past 9 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, musicians and venues everywhere have been fighting for their very right to exist. With little direct support from the government, many venues have turned to funding from the likes of Arts Council England and the Music Venue Trust in order to keep themselves afloat, while musicians have looked towards a few creative ways to perform under lockdown conditions. 

Many instantly turned to streaming their performances via social media platforms, either from their own accounts or via digital platforms provided by venues, festivals and promoters. Some performed stripped back sessions from their bedrooms, while others entered professional venues or studios under safe covid conditions in order to professionally broadcast their music directly to the homes of a much deprived and hungry fan base. A great number of venues have even had more people watching live than they would physically be able to fit in at maximum capacity!

Platforms like Facebook, Bandcamp and Twitch all adapted fairly quickly to allow for streamed events to be hosted, promoted and even ticketed so that musicians could look at potential revenue from their live performances outside of what some venues and promoters were offering. In response to these adaptations of musical consumption, earlier this week British copyright collective ‘PRS for Music’ launched their new ‘Online Live Concert’ license to an outcry of disgust and condemnation from many within the British music scene.

In short, their new licences require PRS-registered artists wishing to monetise livestreamed sets OF THEIR OWN MATERIAL to pay for the privilege of doing so. The minimum PRS will charge for such a license is £22.50, regardless of how much the livestreamed gig actually makes. The more you make, the more you pay them – this is in line with the way PRS charges venues for proper gigs but in real terms they are charging a much higher percentage for the live streams. Even at the lowest rate, it is still double the tariff that many in-person shows are currently charged to either venues or promoters by PRS, and is charged regardless on whether they are fundraising for charities during the pandemic as many have done so over the last year.

This extremely misjudged move by PRS has been outrightly challenged by a great many of the UK music industry. Music Venues Trust have said that they are “Shocked and appalled” and that “This decision puts PRS even more out of touch with our community at a time when streaming shows, especially during extended lockdown, means less music and culture when it’s needed most.”

With Music Managers Forum and Featured Artists Coalition putting out a joint statement saying:“PRS have not consulted their members with regard to this new license, which seems to penalise independent artists, who largely perform their own material. It makes absolutely no sense for me as an artist to pay a license to PRS, only to get it back (which can sometimes take years!) once PRS have deducted their admin fees. We need clarification and amendments to this, so that artists are not out of pocket with their livestream shows.” (Roxanne de Bastion, Artists, Songwriter and FAC Board Director)

All of this comes but two years since PRS for Music removed fixed license fees for small venue shows and moved to a standard 4.2% of overall revenue, which resulted in a massive hike in the costs to run live events often coming direct from the show promoter’s budget ahead of the direct performance fees guaranteed to musicians. Many venues were made unaware of the changes and treated like criminals by the PRS after the fact, threatening and imposing fines without evidence that they were even aware of the changes to licensing. 

We spoke with legendary events promoter & radio presenter Seymour Quigley to find out his thoughts on the matter:

“I’ve been a Performing Rights Society member since 2002 and whilst the PRS Foundation can be very supportive of artists and songwriters, I have always been appalled by the behaviour of PRS for Music, their revenue collection wing (a conglomeration of three copyright protection companies with a mutual interest in clawing in songwriting revenue wherever possible: PRS, the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society and Phonographic Performance Limited). The problem is that the PRS for Music has a complete, government-sanctioned monopoly over live music performance in the UK. In theory there are checks and balances, but in reality they operate with complete, unfettered autonomy and – as their latest decision has clearly illustrated – have the power to make snap decisions which can undermine the entire live music infrastructure in this country. If such decrees were coming from central government, there would be uproar; the fact that they’re coming from a conglomeration of limited companies with undeserved, unrestricted power is, if anything, even more horrifying.”

“Central to the PRS for Music problem is their attack-is-the-best-defence approach to collecting revenue: in short, they treat venues and promoters as enemies to be pre-emptively conquered. In normal times, when gigs and festivals can take place without restrictions, PRS for Music satisfies itself with bullying venues and promoters, particularly smaller, independent venues who have no choice but to acquiesce. However, with venues closed and festivals being cancelled for a second year running, it was perhaps inevitable that PRS for Music would eventually turn its bullying gaze to its own members, the artists and songwriters, and that is exactly what they have done with their latest decree.”

“Given that in most cases, it is the artists themselves acting as promoters for live streams in a desperate attempt to make ends meet during an extremely difficult time, the entire situation is – frankly – horrifying. Despite the universal outcry from organisations which support live music, including the Music Venue Trust and Independent Venue Week, not to mention legions of its own members, PRS for Music have so far refused to engage with any discussions, to explain their decision, to allay people’s fears or to back down in any way. The fact that the announcement was made during Independent Venue Week reeks of malice.”

It’s safe to say that this Global Pandemic is exposing many harsh realities and contradictions in the workings of capitalism, with this episode confirming what many artists, venues, promoters and managers have felt for many years: PRS for Music is a mercenary organisation, a protection racket wielding its unchallenged power for its own ends at the expense of an entire industry. They are not fit for purpose, and their position must be challenged.

Joe Weaver

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