Feargal Sharkey: Noises Off

The chief executive of British Music Rights wants music lovers to keep an open mind
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The Independent Online

Do millionaire rock stars need more money? I can guess your answer. Recent headlines have reported that, thanks to the European Commission, the likes of Sir Cliff Richard and Sir Paul McCartney are in line for a bumper bonus payout. In what was also termed the "Beatles extension", the commission is to debate whether the term of protection for sound recordings is extended to 95 years.

The prospect has aroused all manner of intellectual passions. Certain learned academics have been particularly vocal in their criticisms; claiming in a letter to José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President, that any move to extend copyright is one of greed and self-interest. Or, in their own phrase, nothing more than "a spectacular kowtow to one special interest group: the multinational recording industry".

Those were the headlines. Scroll down to the meat of these newspaper articles and a slightly different picture emerged. In fact, the commission's primary aim is not to help major labels or to prop up the pensions of so-called "featured artists". Quite explicitly, the first line of the proposal states that it endeavours "to improve the social situation of performers, and in particular session musicians, taking into account that performers are increasingly outliving the existing 50-year period of protection for their performances".

The approach of the commission is actually to provide support for some of the music industry's "invisible" talent, whose names and faces are tucked away in the notes and credits. It is these session musicians, many of whom played a pivotal role in the creation of what we now term pop music, that the commission is looking to help.

Their circumstances will often be starkly at odds with the glamour that surrounds outsider perceptions of the music business. Even today, only around 5 per cent of British performers will earn more than £10,000 a year. Although typically "bought out" by a one-off payment at the time of recording, session players continue to receive a drip-drip percentage of royalties whenever a song is broadcast on TV or radio. Many rely on this, however inconsistent or paltry it might appear to be.

Are we interested in supporting these individuals? From a personal perspective, I most certainly am. Under current copyright laws, once the 50-year rule is up, that performance-income tap will be turned off for ever, just when some of these hugely talented people will need it most.

Even more intriguing is the prospect, again written into the commission's proposal, of session players benefiting from the revenues of future recorded sales. This is timely, given the digital revolution that has blown open access to music and created a variety of new income streams.

Ironically, it is so-called "heritage acts" who, so far, have been the main beneficiaries of the digital era. Such artists, who have been signed and marketed, are now increasingly able to sell direct to a ready-made fan base, even without a recording contract. If session players and musicians could also get a second bite at the cherry, I'd be all for that.

Of course, the other important factor here is the music fan. A healthy copyright system requires careful balance between the creator and consumer, and the academics argue keeping the 50-year rule will mean cheaper prices.

Their logic is half-right, at best. In the digital world, for instance, Apple's iTunes Store sells all tracks for 79p, regardless of copyright. Who knows how music will be sold in 10 years' time?

In the physical world, I'm sure prices would fall – but only as a result of fewer well-annotated, lovingly-prepared re-issue albums, and a surplus of ill-prepared bargain-bucket compilations. Is this really the kind of entrepreneurialism they are looking to advocate?

Feargal Sharkey is chief executive of British Music Rights