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Brit Beat: Labels Plot Response to Scathing U.K. Streaming Report — Is a Similar One Coming to the U.S.?

·8-min read

Summer vacation season may have started in the U.K., but the fallout from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s Parliamentary Committee report into the economics of music streaming continues to keep much of the British industry hard at work.

The report calls for a “complete reset” of the streaming economy and recommends measures, including introducing the right for performers to receive equitable digital music remuneration, and refers the major music companies to the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate what it called their “market dominance.”

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While the government’s response is not expected until early-to-mid September and it is under no obligation to follow the recommendations, the record labels and their representative trade bodies — many of whom felt the Committee’s approach gave them few chances to show the value they bring to artists’ careers — still have a chance to lobby Ministers.

While many on the label side acknowledge that changes to legacy contracts and recoupment policies need to be made, sources tell Variety they are working on bringing new data to the government in order to challenge the necessity of some of the committee’s recommendations.

The door also remains open to behind-the-scenes negotiations that could yet avoid any regulatory/legislative approach. The #BrokenRecord and #FixStreaming campaigns both say they would welcome discussions with labels, although the three majors and the many indies all have differing positions. For example, BMG said the report “reflects our own view that the music industry desperately needs to modernize”; while Universal is focusing on its imminent IPO and Sony had already moved to pay through on unrecouped balances for deals signed before 2000.

The report calls on Warner and Universal to follow Sony’s lead, but they have yet to respond. Warner declined to comment and Universal would only say that it had read the report and “will respond in due course.” But Variety sources suggest both majors were already investigating options for contract reform before the report was published. The U.K. music world and many more will be watching to see what happens next …

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Meanwhile, whatever the U.K. Government decides to do with the report, the man behind the influential #BrokenRecord campaign for streaming reform says he’s not done yet.

Indeed, Tom Gray – co-frontman of the band Gomez, but probably now better known for his campaigning – may take the fight for improved streaming revenues Stateside.

“There are a lot of Americans who want to get involved,” Gray tells Variety. “We could easily make this jump the Atlantic tomorrow. Some very big names in America have shown very serious interest in wanting to emulate the same thing over there.”

Gray’s ability to attract big name artists to the cause – in the U.K., the likes of Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Mick Jagger and Stevie Nicks have supported #BrokenRecord, which runs parallel to the Ivors Academy and the Musicians’ Union’s #FixStreaming campaign – could cause consternation in the U.S. label biz, should he launch an American equivalent.

“The only thing holding me back from doing it is the sheer amount of effort and will this is taking to do,” he says. “I’ve got a reputation now for being a terrible troublemaker, but I’d rather be writing fucking songs to be honest with you!”

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Another British institution is also contemplating a trans-Atlantic push — actually, a second one.

HMV – the music retailer that is the last major record store chain left on the U.K. High Street – celebrates its 100th anniversary this month. And, despite the woes of the pandemic, which forced its shops to close for long periods, owner Doug Putman is now planning an expansion.

Putman tells Variety HMV will open 10 new stores this year and is actively seeking a location for a new London flagship store. HMV has not had a central London outlet since its storied Oxford Street shop – the U.K. equivalent of Tower Records on Sunset – shuttered in 2019. That store remains empty, meaning HMV could even potentially move back in.

“Anything that’s vacant is an option,” says Putman. “They obviously have no tenants so everyone is open to that, it’s just a question of whether a landlord can make sense of a deal. I’d love the old store, but it really has to make sense [financially]. It’s crazy, we could have been there the last two years, but instead it stays vacant.”

Putman also owns the Sunrise chain in his native Canada and the FYE stores in the U.S. but he doesn’t rule out a Stateside opening for HMV (the retailer did operate in Canada until 2017).

“I can’t lie, there’s a part of me that would love to see HMV stores in the U.S. and Canada,” he says. “It wouldn’t be this year, but we always look at it.”

Until then, he’s concentrating on returning HMV to profitability, with a focus on sales of vinyl and pop culture merch.

“My job is to have HMV survive long after I’m gone,” he says. “The goal is to get this business to be celebrating a 200-year anniversary. People think that’s silly, but I don’t. Ultimately, retail is a really simple concept: have something that people want to buy. It’s on us to do that.”

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Sony’s RCA label, which leads the U.K. market shares at the halfway stage. Figures from the Official Charts Company show RCA comfortably ahead of Universal’s EMI on all key metrics for the first six months of 2021, including Track Streams, Track Sales and Artist Album Equivalent Sales.

RCA U.K. President David Dollimore and Dipesh Parmar, president of dance label Ministry of Sound, which operates under the RCA umbrella, credit a strong mix of cross-genre hits for the new-found success.

“We’ve never seen this in my time at Sony,” Dollimore, who joined RCA in 2016, tells Variety. “We’ve had a super-strong international release schedule that’s come through, and domestically we’ve delivered across returning acts and new acts. It’s definitely a chart game week-on-week; making sure we’re dominating the Top 20 singles chart and the airplay chart.”

While the label benefits from having international stars such as Doja Cat, Travis Scott and the Kid Laroi on its roster, it has also produced hit albums for an eclectic mix of domestic acts, from Little Mix to London Grammar and Bring Me the Horizon. And on the singles front, RCA has proved itself very strong on TikTok, which has helped produce streaming megahits for the likes of Riton and Regard.

And with nightclubs finally allowed to reopen in the U.K. starting July 19, Parmar expects his label – originally an offshoot of the famous club – to benefit further.

“Even with all the hits we’ve had, there have been some misses,” he says. “You can’t help but think if people were hearing certain records in a different environment, that would bring more energy to a track. Having clubs open is definitely going to help cement the hits.”

Dollimore remains confident that RCA can still be top of the tree at the end of the year and also expects the success to provide a further boost to the roster.

“Managers and artists want to see they’re signing for a label that is No.1,” he adds. “They want to be on the Premiership team.”

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Meanwhile, the biggest tastemaking job in the U.K. music business is about to change hands. The BBC Radio 1 Future Sounds evening show, hugely influential when it comes to breaking new artists and records, will switch up its host for the first time in six years.

Annie MacManus, aka Annie Mac – who took over the show from Zane Lowe – has her last broadcast tonight (July 30) and, on September 6, new presenter Clara Amfo will take over.

Amfo is already a familiar voice on Radio 1, where she currently hosts the mid-morning show, and is hugely popular with a wider audience via her TV work, which includes co-hosting Glastonbury Festival and a starring turn on “Strictly Come Dancing,” the U.K. version of “Dancing with the Stars.”

She tells Variety she will maintain many of the show’s current features, including the coveted Hottest Record in the World slot, which premieres a new song every day.

“The plugging for that has already started!” Amfo laughs. “It’s coming via DMs, WhatsApp, email, carrier pigeon, smoke signals… and we haven’t even gotten started yet! I’ve never felt more popular!”

Although the show’s roots were in the alternative rock scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Amfo says she will put her own stamp on the program by championing an eclectic list of genres and artists.

“The culture of how we listen to music and the culture of music fans has changed, and how the show is presented has definitely reflected that,” she says. “Music listeners aren’t so tribal anymore and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You’ve got people who are just as enthused about drill as they are about some punk band from Southampton. I’m an open-minded music lover – it’s about not being a snob.”

And while Lowe and many other presenters have left the BBC to join a streaming service, Amfo insists radio can still compete for attention and audience in 2021.

“Radio 1 has done a good job at accepting that people can have loyalties to many different sources and it’s OK,” she shrugs. “Just because I use Netflix doesn’t mean I’ll never use Amazon Prime.

“But there’s an intimacy with radio that people still want, even though stuff is at their fingertips,” she adds. “An algorithm isn’t going to hug you at night… Well, nor am I, but I’ll say hello and that’s the equivalent!”

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