Submission to the independent inquiry into the economics and impact of music streaming on behalf of NMC Recordings Limited
9 December 2020
Contemporary composers and their contribution to society
NMC Recordings Limited is both an independent label and a charity dedicated to recording the music of outstanding contemporary composers. We sit in the area of music often described as ‘contemporary classical’, although many composers resist categorisation. Our interest in this enquiry is as a highly regarded specialist label that doubles as a living archive of three decades of extraordinary new music.
Our catalogue contains important works by leading lights from successive generations of recent and living British composers, including Sir Harrison Birtwistle; Master of the Queen’s Music, Judith Weir; Anthony Payne, Oliver Knussen, Mark Anthony Turnage, Gerald Barry, Julian Anderson, David Sawer, Tansy Davies, Errolyn Wallen, Huw Watkins, Anna Meredith, and many more.
We believe that the composers we record push the boundaries of human expression in form, structure and sound, mirroring and influencing contemporary society. Music would be the poorer without them, and yet the music industry is inhospitable to many of contemporary music’s most innovative creators. The returns they make from streaming music are minute. Last year, one of our most celebrated and widely commissioned composers earned £.0003 per unit in streaming revenues.
We want to make the case for changes that are beneficial to this part of music’s ecology, encouraging excellence, music experimentation and diversity of expression, rewarding composers appropriately, supporting dedicated small labels like NMC to thrive, and confirming UK’s position as a still-dominant force in this field.
NMC’s unique history and value
Founded by composer, Colin Matthews OBE, NMC has been in existence since 1989; we receive public funding from Arts Council England. Our business model is a delicate balance of limited state support, earned, and charitable income from individual donors, Trusts and Foundations.
‘A national treasure, introducing listeners all over the world to new music by composers from Britain and Ireland’ (Sir Simon Rattle CBE, NMC Patron).
NMC believes that new music is a dynamic and engaging art. We have four main aims: to produce high quality recordings of outstanding work by composers from Britain and Ireland; to work with leading artists and ensembles; to promote these recordings to a worldwide audience; to preserve this music and make it permanently accessible – we have a no-deletions policy.
NMC also provides high quality education resources for use in music teaching, including bespoke resources, derived from our catalogue, for GCSE Dance and GCSE Music students; we also create schools music projects, supported by NMC composers. We create online events and other high-quality content, including composers’ interviews, to engage listeners and promote the music in our catalogue.
Our catalogue now comprises more than 300 recordings and the work of 500 composers. Each year, we release circa 10 new NMC albums, including a number of ‘Debut Discs’ of music by composers for whom a ‘Debut’ recording will be the first full-length release of their music; these composers would not otherwise achieve this exposure.
In addition to recording hitherto unrecorded material in the studio, we also release pre-existing recordings that were broadcast from the concert hall or studio, giving new life to music that was heard only once, and adding value.
We also work with small ‘third party’ labels, providing a comprehensive service including manufacture, distribution, marketing and promotion. These labels and the composers and ensembles they feature benefit from NMC’s higher profile and access to a global market.
We release physical CDs but our music is also available in digital download formats; some recordings are released in digital formats only.
Our financial model requires us to be as efficient a business as possible, minimising overhead spend while delivering our unique charitable purpose. We manage financial risk to the Charity by securing funding from a broad range of trusts and foundations for every project, and by carefully planning and controlling expenditure.
While this approach is judicious and appropriate, it means that NMC is obliged to limit the number of projects – and composers – we champion. Our ability to release recordings and grown our catalogue is limited by levels of income.
Enhanced returns from streaming our catalogue would help individual composers and improve the wider economy for new music generally, financing more activity, and growing the market.
ALGORITHMIC CURATORIAL INTERVENTIONS
While algorithmic interventions can help users to easily find tracks in the same style as the ones they’ve been listening to, algorithms mitigate against promoting the music of ‘outliers’, and growing audiences for more experimental or different music. In other words, they do not promote diversity of expression or creativity. Ultimately, this must have a deadening effect on the industry. (Critics have written about the tendency for ‘personalisation to the point of banality’ and the ‘one-size fits all approach’.)
Economic models – the return on investment
This music has been many years in the making, not only in terms of the hours, weeks and months an individual composer has spent in creating a work, but also the years of dedicated training required to become a professional composer. This also applies to individual musicians in performing ensembles, many of whom will have trained intensively since childhood, graduating from leading British institutions; the highly trained conductors that direct performances; and those running public venues that commission and present the work ‘live’ to audiences in the first place. Many of these ensembles and institutions will be receiving public money via government funding bodies and local authorities. As things stand, streaming revenues are a poor return on wider public investment, as well as for the individual.
Alternative revenue models
NMC is sensitive to the fact that any change to the current impact could have negative implications for some. Potential harms and benefits must be rigorously evaluated. However, there are new, different models for remunerating composers and artists:
- ‘Resonate’, a new streaming platform based in Berlin, provides a more equitable distribution of streaming income to rights holders on a sliding scale basis, based on the number of ‘plays’ per user;
- Other ‘user-centric’ models where subscribers’ fees are allocated to the composers and artists they actually listen to, rather than going into a general ‘pot’;
- ‘Durational’ payments – classical music forms tend to be significantly longer that standard tracks, and artists could be remunerated proportionately;
- ‘Ambient Flo’ is a new subscription-based platform, born of the pandemic; a third of revenues are redistributed to playlisted artists.
NMC hopes this Inquiry will lead to greater recognition of this dimension of the UK’s music industry, as embodied in NMC Recordings. It is too easy to overlook practitioners at the edge, with comparatively small audiences, and yet this work has been proved to have extraordinary longevity, value and reach. We would ask the Inquiry to consider any change with great care, with a view to improving revenues for outstanding UK composers, and their support structures, so that this sector and the UK can reap the rewards of years of personal dedication by its composers and public investment by local and central government.