If you're launching a campaign to portray Google as the bad guy in a dispute over licensing payments, don't give Pete Waterman a microphone. That's the lesson from today's launch of PRS for Music's Fair Play for Creators campaign.A millionaire music mogul comparing his paltry YouTube royalty cheques to the plight of exploited construction workers living in squalor in Dubai is, frankly, ridiculous. And it undermines the very serious message that PRS is trying to get across about rights for all songwriters and composers – not just the rich ones.Thankfully, other voices were present at today's launch, including Billy Bragg. Music Ally sat down with him at the event to get his views on the campaign, and the wider issues around it. It certainly provides a counterpoint to Waterman's “fucking unbelievable” (in Bragg's words) comments.Read on…Music Ally: What's this campaign about for you?Billy Bragg: “I've had in mind for quite a while that artists need to organise, because decisions are being made at a national and trans-national level that deeply affect us. About issues around copyright, issues around ownership…The internet has incredible potential. It's not something to be afraid of. I sometimes worry that the British music industry – the big labels – are actually afraid of the Internet. I think it's the best thing to happen to artists since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. It has that kind of potential.But the access it gives us to the punters, by getting rid of everybody in between, is a double-edged sword. It gives them equivalent access as well. And the old ways of protecting our intellectual property are completely broken down.MA: It's always been about control, hasn't it?BB: Well, it's been about fairness. It's been recognised ever since the player piano was invented that having music in a restaurant or on a radio station adds value. It's intangible sometimes, but because we're making that contribution, it's fair that we get some remuneration. Not everything, but something. That's been broadly been accepted by everyone.There've always been people who've been pirating. The first music I owned was taped off a mate of mine's older sister's Tamla Motown Chartbusters Volume 3! But I have to tell you, I must have loved that music so much, I've bought that album four or five times. Smokey Robinson got his bloody money in the end!I wouldn't be surprised if the Internet turns out to be the same thing, a bit like pirate radio. Ultimately, we find a way to co-opt what most people are doing, which is downloading stuff for free – and monetising it.Not necessarily by making people pay for their music, but by monetising their activity – the websites they visit, the advertising that they see. There's plenty of models where music is free or it feels like it's free, and artists still get paid.The obvious one is the BBC. It feels like free, even though you're paying a licence. Same with your ISP – how much does it cost to send an email? Dunno. But you do pay for it, don't you.Imagine if music was the same. You paid a pound a month on top of your broadband and could have all the music you wanted. And we worked out what you actually clicked through, and the artist gets remunerated that way.Or there's the commercial radio model, where it is free, and artists are getting a squirt from the advertising. So that's two models off the top of my head, and I'm sure there's three or four other models that we haven't really sussed out, because we haven't really got ourhead around how the Internet works.So it's not beyond the wit of man to work out ways to remunerate artists that are fair. But Google doesn't seem to want to play that game.MA: Isn't the problem less a case of Google being greedy, and more the case that it can't make enough from ads to pay the licensing fees? The model's broken, in other words, rather than them being evil?BB: How d'you know they can't sell enough ads?MA: Well, they say so…BB: How d'you know that though? Where are their accounts for the last year? They're covered by non-disclosure agreements. That's really a problem: the lack of transparency. And it's right through the industry.This is not just a Google problem. The deals that the big labels have done with Nokia? They're all covered by NDAs. And even if you wanna register with YouTube as an artist to receive royalties, you have to sign an NDA for that!And the reason it's really ridiculous is that until we can work out what it's worth, how can we work out what's there for us to be remunerated?All the discussions that have been made, and with due respect to PRS including the finding that they had from the Tribunal, is all based on guesswork. And that's the real problem: it's Google's lack of transparency.MA: And yet the Web is supposed to be the most trackable medium known to man…BB: Apparently! PRS say that Google's tracking is really really good. And it can tell you how many clicks you've had and where you've had the clicks. So the technology is there. And it may be that the advertising money isn't there yet. But until we can sit down, all ofus around the table and transparently discuss what's happening, it's like a bunch of people discussing Quantum physics, where nobody knows what's going on.It's ridiculous, but ultimately Google are making a huge amount of money, and what happens with PRS will set a precedent. There's other big monsters out there – at least Google wanna sit down and work out a rate. MySpace? Fuck off! MySpace are paying nothing! Absolutely nothing! An entire empire built on free content.Those are the people we should be going after, not some kid downloading a song for nothing to play for his mates. I'm in the wrong place to say this [PRS HQ], but I think that's something we can't do anything about. It's part of the music business, it has a role to play…MA: I guess at least YouTube is a legal place they can go to find music, though?BB: But crucially free. I don't expect kids to pay for watching YouTube. I don't expect that to happen. But there is money to be made there. So the big players need to sit down with groups like PRS, who are traditionally the representatives of songwriters, and work out what's fair.PRS have a lot of experience with the way the market is, they can compare and contrast. Google needs to stop acting like a 300-pound gorilla. It's good not to be evil, but it's also good not to be a bully. If they wanna be hip, then they need to… They're starting to trip up on a lot of things.MA: Like Streetview?BB: Yeah, people don't like that a corporation can just do that. There are issues there. We need to just say to ourselves do we really want these services that offer you an app that tells you where your mates are when you've got your mobile phone, but also lets them know exactly where you are? [He means Latitude]. Do we want this intrusion? Because a lot of this is now being sold with phones anyway, whether you want it or not.We do need to try to get Google to behave like a reasonable normal company, because they're distorting the market by leaning on PRS. This isn't acceptable in a post-crunch society. Things have got to be transparent and honest – nobody's going to like a profiteering bully.MA: Is it important that artists and songwriters are more savvy about their rights and what's happening with new technology, to be able to ask these questions?BB: We relied on the music industry to represent our best interests. Sadly, that looks to have been a flawed strategy!MA: With things like Nokia Comes With Music, artists seem to be starting to ask questions like 'how does that upfront label payment come through to me?'BB: And it doesn't. A lot of the payments in these deals, including the Google deal, go to the record companies' bottom line. The record labels monetise the catalogue, but the artists don't get paid.So one of the things we're campaigning with for the Featured Artists Coalition is for labels to have a fiduciary duty to notify artists when they monetise catalogue, and how it was monetised and what the deal was.At the moment, money is changing hands, but it's not getting to us. So all we're left to do is organise. It's taken us this long because we thought we were being represented. But sadly, we're not. So today is about setting that example, of us organising.I don't know what the music industry is going to look like in ten years time, but I'll tell you this. There'll be people who wanna hear good music, and people who wanna make good music.So the rest of the industry – even the Googles of this world – have got to configurate around that new reality that the Internet has gifted us: that ability to get in close to the people who really wanna hear you, rather than having to scatter your product and your budget in the hope of finding people who might be interested.Now, by linking things together, you can find that community.I was talking to a guy today from a young band, who was bemoaning the amount he gets from the price of a download. And I said 'Listen, son, I hate to sound like a really old geezer, but in the old days when I was making records, there were so many people between me and the punters taking a cut, that I bet you're making more money in your hand than I made when I was selling a hundred thousand records a year' through record shops.So even if you're only making 10p or 20p a song, potentially you might still be making more than someone in the sixties.It's a matter of perspective, I think. The old big sell'em high record shops, which I mourn the passing of – the loss of space and knowledge – taking those out of the equation, the potential today for us to make our own records and make more money is there.This is not anything to be afraid of, as I said. We've just got to work out what's fair, both for us to expect from people who exploit our material, but also what's fair for punters to do without having to pay us. It goes both ways.There is no definition of fair use in British law, but if someone is in a school and doing a play and wants to use one of my songs, I think it's fair that they should be able to use that. Or someone making a student film, that's fair. But if they start to make money, that's when the copyright laws should kick in. When money is made, artists should be paid.That kind of brainset is what we need to move forward in the digital age. To look and see who's making the money, how they're making it, and where's our bit? That traditionally is how we made our money. The record shops made money, we took a cut. The radio stations made money, we took a cut. The TV programmes made money, we took a cut.Well, Google are making money. MySpace are making money. Where's our cut?MA: But how important is it that this isn't just about rich artists or songwriters complaining about getting paid? Comments about Dubai hotel-workers from people like Pete Waterman don't exactly help the cause, if you're doing this on behalf of the whole gamut of creators.BB: I was just talking to a guy about Serbian shepherds, whose music he records – and it's fucking incredible, by the way – and it's been put up on the internet for nothing. What can we do about that? The Robbie Williams of the world, who's a supporter of the FAC. They are the exception. But if Robbie don't get paid, none of us get paid.So we rely on a big hitter like Robbie standing up for the Serbian shepherds at the other end. We rely on Robbie not looking the other way and agreeing with the major record labels. If he turns round to his major label and says 'Hang on a minute…', well, it carries a lot more weight than Billy Bragg, I can tell you.It's an unfortunate imbalance that's reflected throughout our society, but it's important that people like Robbie do say that. Because if Robbie gets paid by YouTube, we all get paid. If we can bring Radiohead, or Blur, or some of the other bands who've been supporting the FAC, we can exploit not just that publicity, but the relationship we have with our audience.When we sit down with Google and say this is out of order, they [fans] then start to see Google as out of order. And we start to break down their 'don't be evil' type brand. So it is important that the top earners engage in this as much as people who aren't currently making anything.Because potentially there's a lot of money to be made there. Potentially there are careers that we're talking about…So the guy from the band I was talking to at the back of the room: just that little bit [of money] that gets you from working in a job you can't stand to actually making a living being a musician. That's the hardest transition to make – it takes a lot of faith and a lot of dedication. But once you pass over that bridge, then you're a success, because you're making a living doing what you always wanted to do.So what we're talking about today is making that bridge easier to cross. It's bands like his that have the great potential but can't any longer find that way across. And what PRS are trying to do with Google, and what we are trying to do at FAC, is to help young musicians to make that transition to be able to be like me – 25 years not having to work for some other bastard! I feel so lucky about that, it's the thing I'm most proud of.That's really what's at stake here. None of us really know how we're gonna monetise the activity on the internet, which is how most music is now heard and sampled. It's a huge amount of activity, but how we monetise that in a way that everyone benefits – business models benefit, users benefit, and content providers… And we're not just talking about musicians and songwriters. We're talking about journalists, photographers, film-makers, software…But because music is the leading edge, we're having to fight these fights first. We have got to stand on our rights as creators, which have always been recognised, ever since the invention of the player piano – the first mechanised music provider.But there are a lot of ambiguities, and a lot of thinking's got to be done. We've got to give some, and Google have got to give some. And at the moment, they're really not thinking like that at all. They're pushing us around, and trying to distort the market in their favour. And frankly, that's just not acceptable.
Billy Bragg talks Google, MySpace and creator rights in the digital era
April 8th, 2009 by Music Ally