“Maybe what I’ll say is this: I’ve done 10 years of this. I’m going to let someone else take on the internecine warfare that seems to be endemic to the music industry!”
Even when he’s playing a straight bat to a sensitive question – in this case, one about whether songwriters deserve a bigger slice of the music-streaming royalties pie – PRS for Music CEO Robert Ashcroft has a way with a one-liner.
At the end of 2019, he’ll step down as the British collecting society’s boss, exactly 10 years after his appointment as chief executive. It’s thus the last time Ashcroft will be doing his now-traditional Music Ally interview to mark the publication of PRS for Music’s annual figures.
The numbers for 2018 are good: the society set a new record for collections, which grew by 4.4% year-on-year to £746m, even if distributions to members were down slightly (by 0.2% to £603.6m) due to processing delays.
Ashcroft says he’s pleased with the collections growth, particularly despite the delayed launch in February 2018 of PRS for Music’s joint venture with fellow society PPL – it was originally supposed to debut in July 2017 – and a delay to the approval of PRS’ new ‘Tariff LP’ agreement covering live popular-music events.
To finish the year overcoming those two obstacles, and still growing by 4.4%, is very positive, even if it’s not the 15.4% [growth] of the previous year,” he says. Ashcroft also picks out PRS’ 9.1% growth in 2018 from international collections as a highlight.
“It’s a combination of good fortune in having such talented members, and working so hard to track the use of their music around the world. It’s an area of the business we’ve been investing in since the beginning of my tenure: a matter of both data, influencing distribution policies, and distributing good international relations,” he says, noting that he’s fresh off a plane from Lima in Peru, and a meeting with the CEOs of Latin American and Caribbean collecting societies.
“We’ve worked hard to improve our international relations: going around the world and working out where we have common ground, and problems we can solve for each other. It’s about discussing things, rather than just making a series of demands and executing a tough business negotiation.”
PRS also saw its collections from digital services grow by 17% in 2018, buoyed by the continued growth of streaming, plus new licensing deals with Facebook/Instagram and Mixcloud. The former agreement has been on Ashcroft’s mind.
“I was thinking about Facebook the other day. If you took a snapshot of the music interface on Instagram now and a year ago, you would see dramatic improvements. There’s much more music available: it used to be just six mood categories of library music, and now they’ve got a catalogue of commercial music,” he says.
“They’re making a huge investment in trying to find out how they can make the best use of music for their customer base. That’s encouraging. It’s still early days, but they’re moving fast, and it’s evolving.”
YouTube? That’s a more complicated story, and not just because of the new European copyright directive, which was recently approved by the European Parliament and EU member states, against a backdrop of heavy lobbying from YouTube – its community of creators included.
Ashcroft talks first about YouTube as a licensing partner, however: its first deal with PRS for Music was signed back in 2009, and he points out that “we’ve seen enormous growth there: better and better terms every time we do a licence – and they’ve now launched their subscription service”.
It’s YouTube Music Premium that he has some concerns about, however. “The challenge for them, and therefore for us, is that their free service is so good. The public says ‘Well, Google and its properties stand for free, so what am I paying for?’ It’s quite difficult to shift from an excellent free service to a slightly-better paid-for service,” suggests Ashcroft.
(YouTube, of course, would argue that offline, ad-free music that plays in the background is more than ‘slightly better’, but as yet the company hasn’t put out any subscriber numbers in support of its case.)
“Sooner or later, we’ve got to see some sort of distinction between the two [tiers] which is sufficiently compelling to make people want to pay. I can understand their reticence to make the free service worse, though: then they’ll risk losing customers,” continues Ashcroft.
He hopes YouTube does have the motivation to tackle this challenge, suggesting that while Google (together with Facebook) is a dominant company in the digital advertising market, there may be “relatively little” growth available – at least compared to subscriptions.
“The shift to subscription really is the path forward, but I occasionally have my doubts if they have the necessities to fully engage in that transition. They are definitely prisoners of brand expectation. You see Spotify feeding subscription [with a free tier] successfully. I’m not convinced we’ve seen that phenomenon in YouTube yet. It’s not about Article 13 – or Article 17 as we should call it now! – it’s more the question of the business model.”
Talking of Article 17 and that copyright directive, Ashcroft sees the legislation as an important achievement for the music industry that has been years in the making. While YouTube lobbied energetically against the proposed directive, Ashcroft sees its significance as being as much about other digital services.
“The change in the law creates that level playing field. If Twitter are using music, they’re going to have to take out a licence. The massive multiplayer gaming platforms: their audience is absolutely enormous, with young people watching gameplay and listening to music streamed there,” he says, with Fortnite’s recent Marshmello concert in mind.
“These are the things that we are obviously looking at and working out what the best route forward is. And that’s why it was so important to get that copyright directive passed. It makes it clear that if you’re hosting this content, you have to get a licence.”
For Ashcroft, as for a number of other music-industry bodies and rightsholders, the goal with the directive was to put YouTube and similar services on a “level playing field” with services like Spotify and Apple Music.
Yet Spotify itself has been in hot water with the songwriter and publishing community recently, from the US (thanks to its appeal against new CRB-set royalty rates) to India (thanks to its licensing dispute with Warner/Chappell).
There’s also the ongoing discussion about whether songwriters in particular are losing out in the streaming era, and as part of that the debate about whether songs (and thus their writers) deserve a bigger slice of the royalties pie, at the expense of recordings. What does Ashcroft think about this? He picks his words carefully.
“That is a complex issue,” he says, pointing out that a lot has changed between the physical and streaming eras – not least the way labels have seen what used to be their manufacturing and distribution costs transferred to the streaming services. But Ashcroft also talks about the comparative value of songs and recordings, citing past debates around the live tariff in the UK.
“The premise at the time was that people go to a concert and listen to the performance, and that the songs they play didn’t really matter. Actually, they go for the songs as much as the performance. If you go to see the Eagles and they don’t play ‘Hotel California’ you’re going to be pretty disappointed!” he says.
“If I go to listen to John Grant in Brixton and I hear all of his new album and nothing from his older albums, I’m disappointed! You feel a lift in the room when the big song comes along. Is there a parallel in streaming services, perhaps, where the consumer actually wants the song rather than the performance?”
Ashcroft’s own anecdote is of searching for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on Tidal recently and finding dozens of covers, including one from a German band “who were absolutely brilliant: it blew even Queen out of the water!” His point: “I was listening to the song, and discovered a new performance. So what is the consumer value, and how have the cost structures evolved since the past?”
Which is when he suggests that it’s time for someone else to take on such questions of “internecine warfare” as head of PRS for Music, following his departure in December. Which brings us on to a final question: what skills will that new leader need, to take PRS for Music forward in the streaming era?
“I think there is scope for somebody to be more experienced at digital transformation, or moving to a more technologically-nimble environment. Perhaps more of an operational focus. But you can never be everything to everybody,” he says.
“I’d like to think I have made a contribution to the industry structure and the way we work internationally. We’ve talked about things that have happened over the last decade: digital, law, copyright framework, international relations all spring to mind. We’ve still got some ground to make up in digital.”