Anyone who watches the Netflix sci-fi drama “Stranger Things” probably also knows about Kate Bush’s song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)“, originally released in 1985. It was always a great song, but now it’s a massively popular great song thanks to the series. According to one recent industry estimate, Kate Bush has earned an estimated $2.3 million in streaming royalties as a result of its renewed popularity. Nothing unusual in that, you might think – except that it is in fact highly unusual for a musician to benefit to this degree from a sudden surge in people listening to their music.
That’s because of the way copyright works in the music industry. Typically, an artist signs over the rights to what is called the “master recording” in return for an advance and a royalty percentage of the future profits made from the music. At that point, the creator of the music generally loses all control over their creation, including how it is used, and how subsidiary rights like streaming are sold. As a result, musicians receive only a small fraction of the big numbers that hits can generate, and are forced to watch recording companies rake in most of the profits.
Taylor Swift’s extreme solution
But not Kate Bush. She wisely held on to the copyright for the master recordings of her songs. As a result, she receives the vast majority of royalties from her hits – including “Running up that hill”. Artists who have already signed over these rights have to resort to extreme solutions to regain control over their work. For example, Taylor Swift announced in 2020 that she would be re-recording her songs so that she could retain the rights to the new master recordings.
A UK Parliament committee found in 2021 that “the terms under which the major music groups, in particular, acquire the rights to music favor the majors at the expense of the creators”. This has resulted in an average income for performers that is less than the median wage.
Below the poverty line
Things are just as bad in the publishing industry. In 2018 the US Authors Guild conducted a survey of US authors that revealed a median author income of $6,080, down from $8,000 in 2014, $10,500 in 2009, and $12,850 in 2007. Respondents who identified themselves as full-time book authors still only earned a median income of $20,300, even including other sources of income such as teaching – a figure that is well below the US federal poverty line for a family of three or more.
In the world of academic publishing, the situation is even worse: authors are typically not paid for their work at all. No wonder, then, that the leading academic publisher Elsevier has consistently enjoyed profit margins of 30-40% – far beyond what most companies ever achieve.
$290 million paycheck
The UK Parliament committee noted the “record high levels of income and profit growth and historic levels of profitability for the major labels”. One indication of the money circulating in the music industry was the $50 billion value achieved by the Universal Music Group when it went public on Amsterdam’s Euronext exchange in 2021. UMG’s successful floatation boosted the pay of its chief executive, Sir Lucian Grainge, to around $290 million in 2021. Typical UMG musicians, whose work forms the foundation of the company’s value and profitability, would need around 14,000,000,000 streams of their songs to earn the same amount.
The chasm between the pittance that most creators earn and the healthy profits enjoyed by intermediaries like recording companies and publishers that depend on their creativity is just one indication that copyright is not working. Others include the fact that libraries are increasingly forced to rent electronic versions of books, rather than own them, and that people are forbidden to repair devices – even large, mechanical ones, like tractors – that they have bought because doing so would break copyright laws.
Five LGBTQ+ Books you Must Read(Opens in a new browser tab)
One reason why artists put up with this manifestly unfair situation is that copyright is presented as the only way in which they can be rewarded. That may have been true in the past, but is no longer the case. The spread of the Internet means that there is now an alternative channel for creators to reach out to the public. Music, books, and films placed on a Web site can be downloaded by anyone with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world. That global reach also allows completely new business models to be explored. They can be based not on copyright’s punitive laws and exclusionary approach, but on sharing creativity widely, and encouraging fans – especially “true fans” – to support directly the artists whose work they love.
These and other related ideas are explored in my new book “Walled Culture: How Big Content Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Keep Creators Poor”.
Glyn Moody has been writing about copyright, digital rights, and the Internet for 30 years. He is the author of Walled Culture: How Big Content Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Keep Creators Poor. It may be downloaded free of charge as an ebook from the site walledculture.org, or bought as a traditional book from online bookstores.
By Glyn Moody
Discussion about this post