Music industry bodies have criticised the Performing Rights Society (PRS) after it instituted a licence fee for ticketed small-scale live-streamed performances that they said will leave some grassroots artists out of pocket.
Paid-entry live-streamed shows have become an essential source of income for many musicians during the coronavirus pandemic, from Laura Marling and Dua Lipa, whose Studio 2054 show in November reportedly drew millions of viewers, to emerging acts playing in struggling venues, as well as a way of raising funds for charity.
In December, the PRS proposed a tariff of between 8% and 17% gross revenues for live-streamed events, a marked increase on its usual 4.2% gross takings from in-person gigs. This would be retrospectively applied to live streams that took place earlier in the year. An open letter from the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) and the Music Managers Forum (MMF), its signatories including representatives for Lipa, Liam Gallagher and Arctic Monkeys, urged them to reconsider.
The PRS has now implemented those tariffs and announced a new flat fee for live-streamed shows that generate less than £500 gross. Event organisers of shows taking up to £250 will pay the PRS £22.50 plus VAT, regardless of whether takings surpass that figure. The fee doubles for shows grossing between £251 and £500.
For normal, in-person shows, a venue or promoter would deduct the PRS fee from its artist payments. But artists themselves are often the organisers of small-scale live-streamed gigs, engaging the venue and arranging ticket sales.
A PRS spokesperson clarified that only members of the PRS and international societies represented by the royalty collection agency or performers playing the works of PRS members would be required to obtain a license. Many grassroots songwriters are not registered with the PRS for royalty payments: Music Venue Trust (MVT) analysis suggests that only 27% of artists playing small venues are members.
The PRS denied that any artist would be left out of pocket, stating that any shortfall of £22.50 would be made up by the royalties due.
MVT’s CEO, Mark Davyd, told the Guardian that the measure was “disgraceful” and predicted that live-streamed shows by grassroots artists would “grind to a halt” as a result. “It is a tax in the middle of a crisis on people who need the money. No venues or promoters are making money [from live-streamed gigs] – it’s for artists or for charities they care about.”
A PRS spokesperson said it was not “seeking to prevent artists, many of whom are PRS members, from generating an income from online concerts”, but to ensure that non-performing members such as songwriters and composers “can share in the value being generated by online live concerts which are using their works”.
They clarified that small-scale events would not be subject to retrospective payments. “Going forward members, and others, will know exactly the cost of the PRS licence which will allow them to price their ticketed events appropriately.”
FAC’s CEO, David Martin, and MMF’s chief executive, Annabella Coldrick, urged the PRS to “stop acting unilaterally” and to “implement a waiver for performer-writers to opt out of such fees”.
The news comes during Independent Venue Week (IVW), an annual celebration of the country’s grassroots music venues. MVT has estimated that more than 400 small venues in the UK are at risk of permanent closure. IVW founder Sybil Bell said these “onerous new licences” put the PRS “even more out of touch with our community” and called on them to pull the tariff.
“Many in the artists’ community, who are the beneficiaries of the PRS licence fee, are also against this new licence, which comes without any of the promised consultation with those it impacts,” said Bell. “Like us, they understand acutely how much the live music community is an ecosystem that requires everyone to thrive in order to survive.”
In response to the PRS’s announcement, the Mill in Bradford has cancelled its remaining IVW shows, which were due to raise money for charity.
After the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the cancellation of almost all live shows in the UK, the Mill’s owners converted the venue into a live-streaming stage and offered live-streaming facilities to other venues under the name The Mill.TV.
Mill director Jim Mitcham told the Guardian that the PRS’s timing was “outrageous”.
“We already paid for a limited online broadcast licence from them, and a venue licence, so to be hit with this extra charge that we haven’t been able to account for in advance – we don’t know if we’ll be able to continue.”
The Mill’s live-streaming venture was started “for love, not for money”, said Mitcham. “The margins are so tight. We make no money from live-streaming.”
Over the past year, he estimated that they had paid “thousands” to struggling performers and technical staff. “We’ve had crew working for free to support musicians, or artists working for free to support venues. There’s been huge moral support and people rallying to help each other. They’re doing it to stay alive and the rug’s been pulled out from under that.”