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The UK record business, represented by the BPI, is traditionally swift in reporting its annual numbers and few will be surprised to learn that the brightest spot throughout 2021 was, yet again, streaming. 

The overall recorded music market – straddling physical sales and digital income – was up 2.5% last year and streaming volume itself was up 5.7% (to 147 billion individual track streams) from the year before. 

While the BPI and the labels it represents will be delighted at the continued upward curve they are seeing in streaming, campaigning artists will be viewing this as yet more justification for a need to critically interrogate just how these streaming spoils are carved up and where the lion’s share of money eventually ends up. 

The #BrokenRecord campaign proved itself a catalyst in 2021 in the UK, resulting in a major and detailed parliamentary inquiry into the economics of streaming and where the perceived inequities may lie. 

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While its demands did not get the full and unflinching intervention of government that its founders had (perhaps quixotically) called for, they remain ebullient and assert that in 2022 its battle cries will be picked up and carried over into other markets, notably the US. 

The BPI will point out that in 2021, just shy of 2,000 artists each had over 10 million streams in the UK alone; that is compared with 1,798 artists in 2020 and 1,537 artists in 2019. At the very apex of the streaming pyramid, 180 different artists had over 100 million streams last year. 

“[T]he rise of streaming has empowered more artists than ever – from all backgrounds and eras – to build new fanbases around the world and to forge successful careers in music, while record labels have continued to provide the investment and support needed for British talent to thrive and reach a truly global audience,” is how Geoff Taylor, the chief executive of the BPI, framed the meaning of the numbers in his statement on their publication.

Smaller artists will, however, counter that this still represents the elite of recording acts today and that the vast majority are seeing only a fraction of these numbers and receiving slim annual incomes as a result. 

Taylor did, however, accept that the very definition of “popularity” in the streaming age must come with multiple zeros attached to it in order to make for meaningful income.

“Success today is gauged in the multi-millions, sometimes billions of streams, which generate micropayments that build over time, in line with relative popularity and demand from fans,” he said. “This year’s growth shows there is a huge appetite for music and we believe that by working together we can increase the value of the whole music market, so that streaming can support even more artists in the future.”

Also brewing in early 2022 is what could prove to be a hugely significant court case brought by an artist against their former record label. Kieran Hebden, who records under the name Four Tet, is taking legal action against independent label Domino over the royalties paid through on streaming income for the albums he recorded for the indie. 

Hebden is proposing that because his 2001 contract pre-dates the mass streaming era it is anachronistic and must therefore be recalibrated to apply to what is a very different music business today. He is arguing for a 50% royalty rate and not the 18% rate that was applied to his downloads at the time (which Domino argues should also apply to his streaming income). 

This case may run out of steam (or, more specifically, run out of money) as Hebden says he will be unable to pursue it if the case is escalated to the High Court. Even if it transpires that he cannot afford to go this route, the very fact of the legal arguments around it – coupled with the progress made by #BrokenRecord – may inspire other acts, perhaps with bigger bank balances and who can afford to underwrite the High Court legal costs, to pursue similar action against their labels. 

The new numbers from the BPI are certainly to be celebrated, especially for those in the industry who went through a painful 15-year revenue decline from the turn of the millennium. Yet as artists feel more empowered to kick against what they regard as contractual unfairness, these cheers could soon be drowned out by jeers.

Source: Forbes

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