Creative Industries

Focus

Can EU copyright rules be tailored to the age of digital music?

30.11.12 @ 17:33

  1. By Benjamin Fox
  2. Benjamin email

BRUSSELS - The question of copyrights and the music industry was already old and vexed. The digital age, with the advent of millions of songs accessible at the click of a mouse, has added an extra layer.

  • How can EU copyright rules capture online music? (Photo: Gesac)

MEPs in the European Parliament are now grappling with the long-awaited EU directive on collective copyrights management. The directive, released in July by Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier, was the main item of discussion at the "E-culture and collective management of creative rights" conference hosted by EUobserver this week Tuesday (27 November).

The bill is aimed at making it easier to license music across a number of European countries and to make the role of the national collecting societies who manage the copyrights of artists more transparent and accountable to artists and rights holders.

But while the aims of the directive are broadly supported by industry and by European politicians tasked with passing it into law, does it really tackle the main question preoccupying the industry: how to guarantee fair pay for artists in the digital era?

French MEP, Francoise Castex, who speaks for the Socialist and Democrat group on copyright issues, emphasised the need for a rule-book on multi-territory music licensing and transparency but stated that it was "not enough to deal with the question of fair remuneration for artists in the digital era".

"As legislators the starting point is that we want to support the weakest part in the chain, and the reality is that most artists are not strong enough to negotiate. We want to enshrine the principle of equal pay for artists", she says.

In the panel debate on the draft bill, Swedish liberal MEP, Cecilia Wikstrom, described the proposal as a "very good point of departure" on the road to "create a true single market of music".

However, despite the well-documented popularity of illegal download sites and the difficulty in policing them - the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice earlier this year found that social media sites were not legally bound to block links to illegal sites posted by users - people have not stopped buying music.

Will Page, director of economics at Spotify, the Swedish-founded site which is rapidly emerging as a market leader for legally streamed music, thinks that Spotify can fill the gap and is already doing so. The site is free, but 4 million of its estimated 15 million (and rising) users are paying subscribers.

Spotify says that it has paid 200 million euro in revenue to artists and boasts 300,000 record labels on its books.

Page says that the site's success stems from its instant accessibility. "It takes 285 miliseconds to play any of the 18 million songs on Spotify, and it's legal", he says.

Spotify also takes on the pirated sites at their own game. "Piracy got there first and it will always be a catch-up. Napster was up and running before any legal positions had been taken on downloaded music. But Spotify puts rightsholders ahead of the curve for the first time", says Page.

Ludwig Werner, Managing Director of the Swedish arm of recording industry lobby group IFPI, is among those who believe that the likes of Spotify offer a bright future for budding artists.

Werner told Music Ally magazine that "by switching to a streaming financial model, we actually enter into an abruptly democratic, honest remuneration system. Now as an artist you're actually paid for how much your music is really listened to in the long term."

Another question is what the online world means for musical diversity in Europe?

Spotify's data shows that music tastes vary wildly within Europe. In Sweden, where Spotify was founded in 2006 by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, most Swedes listen to Swedish music. Eighty percent of the top 100 albums are by local bands as well as almost half of the 100 most streamed songs.

There are other interesting trends in listeners' tastes. For example, while the likes of Austria and German listeners display weak 'local love' for home-grown bands, Spanish listeners have a strong degree of 'language love' for Spanish and Colombian language music. Diversity clearly means different things for different people.

One thing for sure is that the Internet has changed the way we consume music. The success and notoriety of sites such as Napster and then Pirate Bay offering access to illegally download millions of songs and album has been one of the stories of the digital age.

But the concept of copying music for free isn't new - the online download has merely replaced the cassette, CD and mini-discs. The question, however, remains the same: how can artists and performers' best secure a living from their work.