IT has been at the heart of the recording industry since they first pointed a microphone at Caruso. Even more than music, it has been money that has made the discs go round.
Britain’s music exports were revealed yesterday to be at their highest levels since the turn of the century. Yet at the same time, a simmering row over where the cash all goes was threatening to boil over into a brouhaha to rival the payola scandals of the 1950s.
Present-day artists such as the internationally-popular, Halifax-born singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran were credited with helping to bring in £404m in overseas earnings, the highest figure recorded by the British Phonographic Industry since it began its annual survey of overseas income 18 years ago.
The total generated since 2000 is now more than £5bn, it said.
The popularity of British music abroad means one in eight streamed, physical and downloaded albums purchased around the world last year was by a UK artist.
But what appeared to be a success story was tempered by a pavement demonstration outside the London offices of Google, by some of the country’s leading emerging musicians.
They would, they said, earn more money by busking there than by having their songs streamed on the firm’s video sharing platform, YouTube.
Songwriter Helienne Lindvall said: “We get told workers’ rights are important, unless the workers are musicians.
“To put in the work, get millions of streams and then get a royalties cheque with £5 in it, makes it difficult to sustain making a living.”
The new LoveMusic campaign, which organised the protest, says YouTube pays only a tiny proportion of its multibillion-pound profits to the creators of the music that fans stream online.
Sir Paul McCartney is among the stars who have thrown their support behind the campaign and demanded that artists and creators are fairly paid for their work.
In July, he called on MEPs to support proposed changes to EU copyright law which would compel YouTube and other platforms to better compensate artists for their work.
“We need an internet that is fair and sustainable for all,” Sir Paul said in a letter to MEPs, who rejected the proposal, in favour of creating an alternative plan.
The LoveMusic campaign was launched by UK Music, the umbrella organisation which represents the interests of the commercial music industry.
Its chief executive, the former Barnsley Labour MP Michael Dugher, called YouTube “greedy”, adding it had “made billions of pounds from sharing music content made by other people”. Mr Dugher said: “It’s time to save music online and get platforms like YouTube to stop dodging their responsibilities.
“The music industry is a vibrant ecosystem. Yet some tech firms are just bulldozing their way through the heart of what we do in search of an even fatter profit, regardless of the impact that has on future talent and the ability of people in the music industry to earn a living.”
YouTube said it had licensing agreements through which “we pay the majority of our revenue to partners, amounting to over $1bn for the music industry in the last 12 months”.
Yesterday’s music export figures were said to have been fuelled by the global success of Sheeran, whose album, Divide, sold 6.1m copies worldwide.
The BPI’s chief executive, Geoff Taylor, said: “Our music not only enriches the lives of fans around the world, it makes a major contribution to the UK economy.”