Agent reflections: Fair treatment of artists for digital streams and recordings
As agents, we are increasingly dealing with requests from orchestras and opera houses that, in lieu of contracted public engagements, our artists perform without audience and their artistry be captured and streamed instead. Due to the fact that in most countries we are still not allowed to perform in front of a live audience, all promoters and presenters are having to think creatively in order to bring classical music performances to life. Currently one of the few viable routes, is through live recordings.
In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis last April and May, there was no doubt that there was an unquenchable thirst for digital steamed music, and as a result, artists in all stages of their careers agreed to make their musical content available (more often than not, for free) in order to engage and inspire audiences. There was little argument at the time that this financial sacrifice was worth doing for the ‘greater good’ of keeping the classical music audience on board in a time when so many are suffering.
However, as many months have gone by and indeed, continue to go by, this financial sacrifice is still expected on top of all of the other troubles facing performing artists right now. In my experience, there has been little done to make a streaming model that is financially relevant to artists into the middle term, as the virus continues to dominate our lives.
Taking the UK alone, a report, entitled ‘Music By Numbers 2020,’ (a highly respected annual economic study by UK Music which monitors the impact of Covid-19 in 2020) concluded that up to 85% of revenue from live music performances was lost entirely as revenues have been close to zero since March, when venues closed and concerts and music festivals were cancelled. Further research from the The Musicians’s Union in September 2020 stated that 34% of all classical musicians are considering abandoning the industry due to losses made during the pandemic, while nearly half of its members have already been forced to seek alternative work, with 70% currently doing less than a quarter of their regular work.
The grim reality is that there is very little that can be done to counteract the concerns surrounding the safety of performing music to live audiences right now. However, what we can control is ensuring fair remuneration to artists for ‘closed door’ performances which are captured and streamed to audiences worldwide. With this in mind, it is our job as agents to look again at the current model and question the expectations of orchestras and opera houses surrounding audiovisual recording and distribution of our artists’ material.
Let me give you a snapshot of a regular scenario many agents are managing for our vocal artists right now:
An artist has been contracted (many seasons ago) for an 8-performance run of a production of an opera. The fee and terms have been agreed (which is typically a ‘per performance fee’ plus the opera house will reimburse the cost of a return flight). It is extremely rare for an opera house to reimburse or offer a contribution towards accommodation expenses despite the fact that the entire engagement (to include both rehearsals and performances) typically spans a 6-week period in the artists’ diary.
Due to Covid-19, the opera house gets in touch to say that they can no longer go ahead with the contract due to the fact there can be no audience and therefore no ticket sales. Depending on the opera house, they will either offer one performance fee as ‘compensation’ for the cancelled contract (sometimes a little more if they have enough state support), but in many cases, no compensation is offered whatsoever.
The news is devastating, especially as this typically comes off the back of a series of similar cancellations in recent months.
The opera house then gets in touch a little later to say that they can invite the artist for one performance, which will be closed to live audience, but will be video captured and broadcast at a later date. It is expected that the artist fly to the same location as the original contract, pay upfront for their accommodation for the production (which is a lengthy time and therefore expensive), and in return they will receive one performance fee. For that performance fee, the artist is expected to give away all rights to their content, and the promoter can use the recording in any which way they please. This could include selling on the recording to a producer who could then exploit it on a streaming service, make it into a DVD/CD and sell it, broadcast it via state or private TV, set up a pay-per-view service where audiences pay to watch the opera – the list is almost endless. For this recording, the artist receives one single ‘performance’ fee, minus costs of their accommodation, living expenses in a foreign country, costs of Covid tests to enter and leave the country and often to enter the opera house/concert hall etc. Believe me, after all deductions, the artist is left with very little.
More often than not, the attitude we receive from orchestras and venues is that our artists are lucky to have been asked to be part of a recorded concert, and there is sadly, an element of truth in this. There are thousands of artists who simply wish to have any opportunity at all to perform, and those artists able to work are the fortunate ones. However, just because there are others less well off, does not mean that we must agree to unreasonable and, in some cases, exploitative terms for our artists when it comes to use of their performance material.
It is true to say that without the single recorded performance, the artist would have had the contract cancelled in its entirety, however, I do not believe that those artists should then feel indebted to those institutions offering a streamed performance. These streams are not a solution to any of our problems, and we should be aware that we could also be making further problems for ourselves in the future, once we have some control over the virus, such as:
Audiences will become accustomed to live streams and we as an industry may struggle to encourage those people back to the concert halls, even after a thorough vaccination programme.
Where streams are made available to audiences free of change or at low cost, we may well be building a subconscious feeling among audiences, that access to the very highest quality art, culture and music should be free or cheap to access from now on.
Where streams are free or inexpensive to watch, we will undoubtedly see a negative impact upon core CD sales as classical music audiences choose to watch those, rather than purchasing new recordings. These new recordings are much more likely to give a larger remuneration to our artists under the royalties model, and are often considered higher quality due to the number of days artists are given to record for major labels.
Surely there are other solutions to this issue:
Can we can find a fairer, royalty-linked model to these deals in addition to the performance fee?
Can there be more transparency whereby if the recording is made into a commercial CD or DVD, or sold onto a larger producer, then a second deal can be made for use of the material?
Can there be some recognition that the artists’ costs of rehearsing for weeks for just one performance is seriously financially problematic and needs to be re-negotiated?
Clearly this problem cannot be tackled by one agency alone and is more likely to succeed as a coordinated and united front. I have no doubt that some of the issues I have raised here are of concern to many in the industry. My post only serves to highlight these issues, and to encourage a wider and more open discussion with record labels, artists and promoters alike.
I do not hesitate to admit that I am approaching this issue from one specific perspective (to protect the wellbeing and rights of my artists), and that I have not touched upon the fact that we are living at a time in which our entire industry is on its knees, and these single captured performances still cost opera houses and concert halls huge amounts of precious resource to put together. I am not even saying that they make money from this arrangement – clearly everyone is losing out. However, something is not right when the artist comes away with less than 1/8th of an original contract, and is expected to survive on this, and not only that, be grateful for it too.