One of the first things they tell you about in any music industry course is APRA (Australasian Performing Right Association).
Their tag line is “Bringing music creators and consumers together”. They collect and distribute license fees for the public performance and communication of members’ musical works. To put that another way, APRA collect money from venues and broadcasters who use music and distribute it to people who write the music. APRA exists because of the Australian Copyright Act that gives songwriters certain rights in relation to the use of original music. To share in the distribution you need to register as a member with APRA. When you write a song, you register the song and when you play it live at a gig or the recorded version gets played on the radio or in a fitness centre or even on a CD player in your local post office, you are entitled to a royalty payment. I don’t want to go into too much detail about that here, instead I’d like to look a little closer at who benefits.Firstly, some facts*. There are over 67 000 composers, songwriters and publisher members of APRA. APRA distributed a total of $196 million to writers in the last financial year. They collected a bit more than this in license fees, the difference going into their administration costs, award nights, grants and such. 0.33% of writers registered with APRA made 39% of this money. By my calculations that’s about $76 million distributed amongst 222 writers. If you divide that evenly that’s a healthy $345 000 each, in just one year. 87% of writers get $1 - $1000. Time for a Marxist revolution I say. What about distributing the $196 million evenly amongst all writer members? Working with the 67 000 figure that would work out at almost $3000 each. Or we could be a little fussier and make songwriters meet certain criteria - they get peer reviewed as to their quality and quantity of songs they write each year. If we whittled the number of songwriters down to 10 000, each could get a healthy $20 000 a year.
To put that money in perspective, the Australia Council for the Arts gave out just over $160 million across all art forms in 2009-10. In that year they supported 895 individual artists. Take out the $50 million they give to orchestras, a measly $12.3 million went to other music projects. With my new royalty distribution proposal you could abolish the Australia Council music grants altogether. The best they can offer is their Creative Fellowships, two per year at $100 000 each. Save that money and build some refugee housing with it.
But back to reality, the problem lies in the fact that APRA royalty payments are calculated on the basis of audience size and the number of plays. A big audience, for example, getting one of your songs played on Home and Away, will get you a big share. Furthermore, Home and Away gets shown all over the world. Each time it does the lucky songwriter makes more royalties. (As it happens the Chairman of the APRA board runs a production company that provides music for Home and Away). Good play on JJJ radio can get you about $15 000 in a year. The theory is that a good song will get played more and therefore deserves more royalties. But I would contend that for each track that makes it on the Home and Away gravy train there would be hundreds of others that would do exactly the same job in the context of the show. Need a catchy well produced pop song to play in the background of a café scene? No problem, hundreds of those made each week round the country. What about radio play? The mainstream FM stations play stuff we’ve all heard a thousand times before. The sorts of tracks that win APRA awards like “Most Played Australian Work” (in 2011 - Seventeen by Jet) or “Most played Australian Work Overseas” (Highway to Hell, ACDC). The question I ask is does the current royalty system foster creativity and a vibrant musical culture or does it just end up supporting a handful of artists and their publishers for whom the music industry fairytale has come true?
(*The information in this article comes from the APRA and Australia Council websites and Chris O Neil of APRA Writer Services who spoke at the Northern Rivers Conservatorium last month)