Wednesday, March 25, 2009

YouTube vs the PRS: PRS summons a mob

The YouTube - PRS dispute is, let's be clear, about the level of royalty paid by the video host to the royalties agency. That is all it as about. YouTube place one value on a play of a video; PRS believe it's something different.

You might not guess that from watching the PRS "Fair Play For Creators" site, where songwriters are given the chance to put their case directly, and have a bit of a moan about Google:



Just remove advertising from the 'offending' pages. These pages would earn no money...Google ARE becoming evil.

Roy Williams (Nervous Records), PRS for Music publisher - 24 March 2009

Roy seems to be referring to Google AdWords appearing on sites which allegedly host unlicensed music - a talking point that seems to have bubbled up from nowhere in the last couple of days. And, yes, although he might have completely oversimplified the idea (you can tell an offending page, presumably, by the tiny Skull and Crossbones in the address bar) it's not a bad demand. And one that Google complies with, when sites breaching its AdWrods terms and conditions are reported.

And, much more importantly, one which has nothing to do with the YouTube-PRS skirmish.


PRS for Music exists to ensure songwriters and composers are paid their rightful reward for the music they create. It is not a commercial organisation, but a not-for-profit collective of songwriters, composers and publishers. Google is a big commercial entity which must properly pay the very people who make the YouTube service a success.

Jools Holland, (Broadcaster - Squeeze), PRS for Music songwriter - 24 March 2009

Well, yes, Google is a big commercial entity. That's hardly relevant, though, is it? If someone was booked to go on the Late Show's Later With Jools Holland and demanded a fee based on the number of hits the BBC News website gets worldwide, rather than the audience the specific programme on BBC 2 gets, you might wonder if your guest had lost control of their faculties.

YouTube, financially, isn't a success; it's doing alright, but not printing cash when you take into account its scale. And the company does want to pay, the dispute is over what a fair rate is.

And why is it significant that PRS is "not for profit"? Sure, it makes it sound a little like a charity, which it isn't, and it's lovely that PRS only creams off a little over one pound out of every ten to pay for its administration, and luxury central London offices, and expensive rebranding operations, and campaigning websites. But "PRS is not for profit and Google makes a profit" is hardly a convincing argument, and until PRS starts to campaign for EMI to be nationalised, we're chalking that one up to attempts to disguise the row as being about 'how much money'?

Abba are angry, too:
I get cross when internet companies paint the picture of a faceless and immensely powerful 'intellectual property industry' as their main enemy just because it suits them. Those under attack are people of flesh and blood, who are passionate about their profession. When I speak with younger colleagues about their current situation I feel a strong sense of compassion for them and I understand their anxiety about the future. Some of them feel that their work is being degraded. There are those crusaders for the right to share files who say: 'Why don't they go on tour and sing for their supper'. This argument shows a staggering ignorance of the fact that so many of the people who write the songs have more often than not never been in contact with artist life. They are producers and songwriters, full stop.

Björn Ulvaeus (Abba), songwriter - 24 March 2009

Well, yes... when, exactly did Google or YouTube characterise the PRS as part of the "intellectual property industry" (even although, of course, that's exactly the industry that PRS is in, even if Abba aren't.)

Bjorn is right, of course: there's less money about for songwriters. But isn't that a structural thing, a side-effect of music going from being scarce and distributed through very limited, tightly controlled channels to being not-scarce, and distributed through an unlimited range of outlets beyond anyone's control? Yes, it's terrible that that makes music - in a strict financial sense - less valuable than it was. But why would you conclude that YouTube has a moral duty to recompense on the basis of the 1989 music industry model instead of the 2009 one?

It becomes increasingly obvious that this is the problem facing YouTube: songwriters and musicians are selling a product whose financial price has tanked, and need someone to blame. It's unfortunate they're blaming one of the few companies which seems to genuinely be interested in trying to help them extract as much value as possible from their songs.

Pete Waterman, at least, does put some figures into his argument:


YouTube is not alone in the online hall of shame where the worthy notion of greater consumer choice is used as a cloak to disguise the fact that copyright infringement happens on a grand scale.

I co-wrote 'Never Gonna Give You Up', which Rick Astley performed in the eighties, and which must have been played more than 100 million times on YouTube - owner Google. My PRS for Music income in the year ended September 2008 was £11.

Music videos and music generally is at the very heart of User Generated Content sites. It is the hard work and creative endeavour of songwriters and musicians everywhere that has been the bedrock upon which many of these websites have been built, creating along the way huge value for their owners. As well as arguing with them over royalty rates, we should be fighting them to get proper recognition for the part we've played in building their businesses.

Pete Waterman, (co-writer 'Never Gonna Give You Up'), PRS for Music songwriter - 24 March 2009

Ignore the first paragraph, which has nothing whatsoever to do with trying to agree a royalty rate with a specific company - it's like BAT insisting that Tesco pay more, wholesale, for fags, to make good its losses when people flog knock-off tabs - and instead, let's look at his figures.

He's done a lot of smudging, of course - he doesn't quite say what period the payment actually covers (was it before Rickrolling really took off?), and his claim of "more than 100 million times" seems a bit unlikely - as of now, the two most popular versions of the video on YouTube have hit about 35 million between them, so "more than 100 million" by the end of September might be a bit of an inflation.

Let's also remember that YouTube counts starts of the play, not full play, and given that Rickrolling was a gotcha moment, it's probably that most of those plays were by people who didn't really want to see the song and would have only heard the first few seconds before pulling a wry grin and clicking elsewhere.

And there's three songwriters for the track. So that does treble the amount to £33, plus ten per cent which went to PRS to pay for its staplers and staff, so that's £36. Not a massive amount.

To be fair, Waterman does concede that the use of Astley on YouTube in this way generated massive mainstream media coverage, and lots of events using the tune as well, bringing with it much more substantial PRS earnings that, but for YouTube, he would never have seen. Oh... hang on, he doesn't, does he?

Still, £36 for millions of views. Is that much?

Consider this: Radio One pays £18 per minute for music paid on its most popular programmes. So, two plays of a three minute song on Chris Moyles show, with an audience of 7.5 million, equates to £108 for the equivalent of 15 million single plays; ten per cent off for PRS comes to about £98; between three people, that's a little over £33 for Pete from 15 million "views". Three times as much as he earned from YouTube, perhaps. But again: not an enormous sum of money.

Also: didn't the payment of which Waterman is complaining come through an agreement negotiated by the PRS in the first place?

It's great that songwriters are joining the debate. But all the while they're blaming Google for the world having changed, it's not really going to get us very much further, is it?


4 comments:

dk said...

Pardon me for being dense, but these are *promotional* videos right? So, adverts? So why do the companies that make them expect to be paid every time they're shown? Surely it should be the other way around - after all, Cadbury's have to pay through the nose for all those adverts in Corrie.

duckie said...

The quotes (often from people I would expect to have more sense like Tom Robinson) really are extraordinary in their wrongheadedness and make me quite angry. Poly Styrene says "3 billion is a whole lot of profit I think it only fair that the song writers and performers get a fair share." Again with the Google profits=Youtube profits conflation.

And this from somebody called Martin: "As a songwriter I think it's out of order that Google wants to take our chance of having a window off the Internet." Because it's Google's responsibility to provide marketing for your work on a website they own Martin, yes.

Sam says: "I had a video that had about 25,000 views in total and when I got my PRS cheque through, I think I made two or three pounds off that maximum. In terms of income, PRS is one of the only things that's profitable for me. So it's quite ludicrous that Google wants to lowering still the amount they pay out for videos . How can something that's played 25,000 times just make pennies?". Like Waterman, none of these guys appear to understand the simple concept of something being streamed to only one person at a time, so wrapped up are they in the old model of TV/radio distribution to millions at a time. Gaah! I'm a songwriter, and I understand it. What makes them so dense?

James said...

It all seems very one-sided, this debate. The suggestion seems to be that Google are the only side benefitting from hosting videos, and the artists get nothing in return.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I've found Youtube has got me buying more music. I'll see a video (or hear a song then hunt the video down), watch it a couple of times, find some other tracks by the same artist, realise that they're brilliant and decide I need the album in my life. Often, it's been a song late at night on a music channel which, if I didn't hunt down there and then, I'd forget about as I dozed off and never see again. Thanks to Youtube, the song's been able to stay in my conscience until I've had a chance to hand over proper money for the proper album.

Sure, you could say artists' websites offer a similar service. But those sites are never as straightforward as Youtube. By the time you've found the right site, figured out their achingly hip navigation, worked out which page has the videos on, waited for it to load and sat through endless 'Buffering' countdowns, you've forgotten why you were there in the first place. By offering one easy-to-use place for any artist to have their video hosted for free, I would have thought it was Youtube that was doing them a favour, not the other way round.

As DK says; Why do they call those things 'promotional videos', anyway?

duckie said...

James, I believe Monty Python's recent action in sticking up their own quality versions of their clips on Youtube, with Amazon links, backs up your argument and proves it can work fine as a promo tool. Their DVD sales on Amazon shot up by 23,000%. The problem with the PRS is that they are focussed so heavily on broadcast royalties it's not enough for them to just promote physical sales, regardless of the realities of the world.

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