25 Jun 2015

Open Letter to Robert Ashcroft (CEO of PRS)

Dear Robert,

I read your letter in today's Financial Times with interest.

You wrote:
[...] the vast majority [of the 111,000 PRS members] neither perform live on stage nor sell sound recordings - indeed most do not even have a record label.
Is that so? Really?!?

I find it hard to believe that there are 100,000 people in the UK who write music, but do not perform or record that music.

You are probably going wrong by assuming that everybody who joins PRS is a dedicated songwriter. But that is not the case. PRS for Music doesn't actually know how many of their members are more than just composers or songwriters, because it's not something PRS asks their members about.

I run a global music rights management company. We do many things, but above all we publish artists who write their own music, and we administer labels who publish the music they release. Many of those artists are members of PRS, but they are not dedicated songwriters. Many of those PRS-member artists also own the labels whose publishing rights we administer. They are artist, composer, label and publisher, all in one.

To us, "publishing" is about licensing the compositions embedded in the music from those artists and labels. The largest part of that involves plugging in to the existing frameworks for licensing musical compositions, either through collective licensing bodies such as PRS for Music, or through direct blanket licenses with companies that use music.

We continually run into all sorts of problems with this, because the PROs and MROs have rules, regulations, processes and procedures that are designed around the traditional model of dedicated songwriters, who engage with publishers, who in turn find artists and labels to record and release those compositions. But the needs of our artists are very different, and many aspects of the rules, regulations, processes and procedures are incompatible with what those people need from collective licensing bodies such as PRS for Music.

I am not alone in experiencing these problems. I meet a lot of fellow publishers at PRS, MPA and AFEM events, many of whom are complaining about the same problems.

So why do those artists-who-write-their-own-music actually bother to join PRS?

When their music is played in clubs, PRS charges those clubs "on behalf of the songwriters". When their music is sold as downloads, the download stores have to withhold money from the sales revenue, to hand that money over to PRS and MCPS "for the songwriters". Similar situations exist when their music is streamed online, or used on YouTube, or played on radio, and so on. This is all money taken away from the artists to "pay the songwriters".

But these artists are the songwriters of their music. The only way to recover those withholdings is to join PRS (and possibly MCPS, and/or get a publisher involved). But when we enquire with PRS for Music about why these people are not receiving the money they are entitled to, we get comments about being "insignificant", or even "irrelevant", and that "PRS does not deal with artists, but only works on behalf of the songwriters".

I really believe in the principle of collective licensing for musical works. For a small company such as us, it would be impossible to direct-license every company in the world that uses music. But the collective licensing agencies need to adjust their rules, regulations, processes and procedures to suit ALL people who write music, and not focus solely on the select few that earn a living from writing music for others to perform and record.

If the societies do not change, then large chunks of the music industry will need to find (or create) alternative ways to collectively license their compositions. We would prefer not to do this, because doing so is likely to undermine the existing collective licensing ecosystems, and may well do damage to the businesses of dedicated songwriters and their publishers.

It is time for PRS for Music to adapt to the realities of the 21st Century. You run that organisation. Please ensure fair treatment for ALL people who write music.

Herman Verkade
CEO of Musiqware Ltd

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