Standing up to Anglo-American mass music

Dafydd Iwan and Dafydd Roberts asks whether the crisis in the Welsh music business represents the kiss of life or death

Two of the biggest names in the music industry are EMI and HMV, and both come from the same beginnings. First there was the ‘Gramophone Company’ releasing a 78 rpm record in 1907 with a picture of a white terrier on its label peering into the horn of a gramophone, with the slogan His Master’s Voice. In 1921, the Company opened its first shop in Oxford Street under the same name, which developed into a Britain-wide chain of stores, with HMV by then an independent company. The Gramophone Company meanwhile grew to be EMI, one of the international music industry’s giants.

But things have changed. Of the 285 shops owned by HMV on Britain’s High Streets, 60 are about to close. This is despite the fact that their main competitors – Tower, Virgin, Our Price, Woolworth and Zavvi – have already gone, and despite the fact that HMV own some of England’s main performance venues, organize some of Britain’s most successful Rock Festivals, and play a leading role in promoting many leading pop artists. In the meantime, EMI is in a swamp of debts and litigations after Guy Hands and his company Terra Firma paid the ridiculous sum of £4.2 billion to the American Citigroup for it in 2007, before the great banking crash. The latest, as we write, is that Citigroup have seized back control of EMI and are preparing to auction the company. However, the Warner Music Group are also looking to sell at auction and so the race is on for buyers.

How the mighty have fallen. It is the result of a startling combination of factors, and all of us working in the music industry now feel the effects of the storm that is engulfing the major players:

  • The digital technology has caused a revolution, which threatens the popular formats (CD and DVD), which looked as if they were here to stay.
  • Virtually everything previously available on CD and DVD is now available via the Internet, and it is technically possible – if that is your wont – to access them for free.
  • The younger generation now receive their entertainment and music through a variety of media – the Web and computers, mobile phones, iPods, and satellite TV. Sky+ and You Tube and their like now make watching real-time TV and buying CDs an old-fashioned, almost irrelevant exercise. Once acquired, music can be passed from one consumer to others, free of charge.
  • Over and above all this the long-lasting effects of the recession and government cuts are slowing down all trade that is not a necessity, and leading to a general decline in high street shopping.

But for us in Wales, this is but half the story. The main income source for composers, musicians and music publishers are the three copyright royalty bodies – PRS, MCPS and PPL. Between them they collect and distribute a total of around £750 million annually. This money comes to them from broadcasters, record companies and all venues and establishments where music is heard and performed.

However, since the systems used to distribute these substantial sums are insensitive to minority cultures it is estimated that only about 0.5 per cent of the total comes to Wales – and this includes all individual composers and musicians, working in English and Welsh, as well as publishers. For individual composers and publishers, the PRS was the main income stream. But three years ago, a bomb was dropped on the Welsh music world when the PRS announced a change in their method of distribution, the net result of which has been an 85 per cent drop in income for Welsh composers. This is no place to go into details, but the basic reason for this huge reduction is that Welsh language records played (mainly on Radio Cymru) do not correspond to the Anglo-American charts. In other words, the distribution systems have not been created to take into consideration ‘minority’ languages, cultures, and audiences.

One of the positive outcomes of this huge drop in royalty income so far, has been the founding of the Welsh Music Publishers and Composers Alliance, known as Y Gynghrair, which represents hundreds of individual composers and companies.  If you want to learn more about this, there are two reports you could read, the first by Bangor University in 2009 and the other by Cambrensis in 2010 – both are available on Another report by Professor Ian Hargreaves on the Creative Industries also provides useful background.

It is fair to say that all these reports accept that there is a strong case for what the Welsh Music Publishers and Composers Alliance have long called for, which is the creation of a collecting body for Wales, along the lines of IMRO in Ireland, with comparable institutions in many other small European countries. Such a body would not only ensure a fair distribution of royalties to Wales’ composers and musicians, but it would also promote the music of Wales – in both English and Welsh and instrumentally – on a world stage. It would ensure that any income emanating from Welsh ‘Intellectual Property’ stays in Wales. By following the models in other countries – like Croatia for example – such a body would be self-financing within a few short years, would secure a better income for Welsh-based musicians, and also create many permanent jobs.

Following an unprecedented forum on 4 March  2011, organised by the Welsh Music Foundation (WMF) and attended by members of Y Gynghrair’s Board, the WMF Board, members of the Welsh Government’s newly created Creative Industries Panel, as well as the Chair of PRS and members of the executive team at PRS for Music, discussions have now moved to a new level. The hope is that they will soon benefit our culture and economy as a nation.

If the music industry is faltering in England and America, we start to understand the nature of the crisis which threatens Wales. The extreme cut in royalty income has coincided with the threat posed by the downloading culture, decline in CD sales and the economic recession. If you add to this the increasing uncertainty concerning the future of the two main platforms for Welsh language music – Radio Cymru and S4C – the true extent of the crisis becomes clear. It’s a crisis that threatens all sectors of the Welsh music industry, and threatens the livelihood, or a large part of the livelihood of hundreds of musicians, composers, singers and publishers.

In the context of the Welsh language, it’s important to remember that music is the medium that allows most young Welsh people to interact with the language. Important as magazines and local ‘papurau bro’ are, as well as books and news websites – and it is certainly not our intention to undermine these – it is without doubt that music is the chosen medium of the younger generation. On the same principle, therefore, that £3.8 million is distributed annually to the printing and book publishing industry via the Books Council, our argument – indeed our plea in the face of the crisis that threatens to engulf us – is that similar support should be given to the music industry.

There are two further aspects to this, which are relevant. The first is that the service, and terms, which the Books Council is able to give the shops, and the number and range of the books published means that the shops turn more and more toward that market, at the expense of the music market. One cannot blame the shops for this, but it is important to realize what is happening, and why. The other is that the few recording companies in Wales feel it to be their duty to try and do justice to the whole range of Welsh music – from the popular (which is not always, perhaps, the ‘best’) to the innovative and progressive and the more serious work which appeals to a minority, but which is an important contribution to the body of Welsh music.

Between them the Books Council and the Arts Council can ensure the complete spectrum of the literature of Wales gets fair play, without having to place too much emphasis on the size of the market. Recording companies attempt to achieve this without public money, and have to carry the loss more often than not. It’s true that that the Arts Council of Wales has sponsored some classical recordings in the past, given grants to a select band of classical composers, and paid for some fringe activities, but these sums are very small compared, for instance, to the sponsorship given to the Welsh National Opera.

Thousands of young people in Wales take part in musical activity, and many of them do so in a very creative way – composing, rehearsing, writing lyrics, performing, recording and broadcasting. Much of this creative activity is done through the medium of Welsh, and yet there is very little public support to ensure the conditions needed for this activity to prosper. To be fair, Radio Cymru and S4C have stood in the breach to some extent, and without them, the situation would be much worse.

But to the majority of our youth, the support for promoting venues and performing opportunities, and the support for young musicians to develop their craft, and the support toward recording, promotion and distribution costs is almost non-existent.  At the same time, the influence of the omnipresent Anglo-American commercial music culture, through digital technology, is threatening to engulf the minority cultures everywhere.

As we have already emphasised, our intention is not to undermine the support given to authors and book publishers, but the comparison does underline the inequity of the present situation. In addition to the support given to individual writers, book publishers can receive financial help towards employing editors, preparing and printing, design, promotion and distribution, and more or less towards all aspects of publishing books and periodicals for the Welsh (and non-Welsh in many instances) readership.

On the other hand, record publishers can expect nothing. And yet recording, mixing, editing, promotion and distribution costs are the same for Welsh recording industry as for the Anglo-American industry. If the underlying principle for giving aid to the publishing industry in Wales is to make up for the size of the potential market, is not the same principle applicable to Welsh music? If one asks the youth of Wales, which is their preferred medium, the answer is obvious.

This is not to say that we are advocating a ‘Welsh Books Council’ for the recording industry, for we would wish the support to be administered in a different way. But there is certainly a case in the immediate future for some of the services provided by the Books Council – such as promotion and distribution – to be widened to include audio and visual products.

A few months ago, when there was an obvious lack of availability of S4C children’s videos on the market, one of Wales’ most experienced retailers, Gwilym Tudur, called for the creation of a body to be responsible for the supply of commercial digital products in Welsh. When one considers the great potential of such products, not only as entertainment, but also for educational purposes, we would heartily endorse his call. Its field of reference could encompass the possible use, especially for educational purposes, of the huge archive of Welsh material amassed over the years by the BBC and ITV as well as S4C and the independent sector.

Our main message therefore is that the unique combination of factors which threaten the music industry and the broadcasting media in Wales today, and especially S4C, is also an opportunity to look anew at the way we give public support to these key areas of activity. Indeed, we believe this to be an excellent opportunity to make sure the Welsh language, and the whole creative scene in both languages in Wales, enters the new multi-media multi-platform digital world with a new confidence and a new vision.

But we must act quickly, or else too many companies will have gone under, too many people will have seen their livelihoods undermined, and thousands of young Welsh people will have been thoroughly disillusioned. And worst of all, the creative vitality of many of these young people will have been stifled, perhaps forever.

Dafydd Iwan is Chair, and Dafydd Roberts Chief Executive of Sain Records.

Also within Culture