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Royalties: A Musician’s Point of View

The author, Luca Spiteri Monsigneur, is a B Com graduate and a music producer.

As I tried to analyse the local music scene, it was difficult not to notice the lack of one. In recent years we have seen a rise in the number of bands and artists, and this obviously gave rise to the number of releases from local artists. This is all well and good, but is this really a measure of the success of our island’s scene? Well, certainly not. Malta lacks a business model for the arts, especially for music. Musicians may play it cool and go for the cliché explanation “I don’t do it for the money” – however, that is a lie. We all would love to see our efforts rendering some sort of profit. Most artists in Malta spend their time songwriting, recording, organising gigs, persuading radio stations to play their stuff and come off with probably, if they’re lucky, just enough money to record their next single. It’s a sad situation, especially considering the fact that there are a number of solutions which could be implemented.

First off, we need a solid understanding of performance royalties. These are payments which, by right, are owed to artists for having their music played in an establishment. Take for example a local bar or a hairdresser, which plays music over a laptop or radio, should pay a yearly fee to the PRS, submit their music playlist to the PRS at least once a year, and the artists receives a chunk of that money once every quarter. PRS is the non-profit organization responsible for collecting monies and distributing them to artists. People often ask who should pay these royalties; the answer to that is literally every establishment with music blaring out of their cheap sound system, including radio and TV stations. Even corporations who have the radio on for their staff. Now, let’s do the math: If local businesses paid their bills, as they should, then we would have more money distributed to local artists via royalties. Artists would have more money to spend on improving their craft and recording, and thus we’d have more releases from local artists, and more money can be circulated towards artists which in turn might increase the number of full time musicians in Malta. Is this the solution to the growth of our scene? Far from it. But this might induce a more professional and serious outlook towards the arts here in Malta.

Recently, a number of business owners have taken to online newsletters and social media platforms to complain about the requirement to pay this license. It was commonly referred to as a tax, and a number of uneducated questions were asked on social media. To put this simply, it can be considered the same as the fee one has to pay when renting a car for a period of time. For musicians, their property is their music. Time and money are spent to get it right, and this leads to exposure to thousands of people. The compensation they are owed is the royalties that should be paid by establishments for playing these songs; after all, this is how full-time musicians in other countries make money. Currently, albums sales are on an all time low because of illegal downloading and iTunes selling songs rather than albums. To make matters worse, music streaming platforms like Spotify charge only 12 euros a month for a never ending database of music. This goes against the expenses which arise from touring, varying from travelling and transport costs, to renting of venues and accommodation. Even managers and crew need to earn their piece; so yes, royalties have become the bread and butter of musicians.

Artists are forgotten on a societal level in Malta. There is no significant investment towards the arts and music in particular. No proper music venues exist, and the only real state support comes from the arts fund, which is a questionable funding program. There aren’t any opportunities for local artists to perform at a professional and international stage, apart from the highly politicized Eurovision, which sees thousands of euros invested in each and every year, with no form of return. The case of ‘we’re just a small country’ doesn’t work anymore, as this theory has been debunked by another island with even less population. In 2013, Iceland had a population of about 320,000. That’s a 100,000 less than Malta. Their national football team made it to the Quarter Finals of the Euro Cup this summer and their artists sell out venues that hold thousands of people, sell thousands of copies of their albums and have hundreds of thousands of fans around the world. From Björk to Sigur Rós, Kiasmos to Of Monster and Men, Olafur Arnalds to Sóley and many other classical, jazz folk and pop artists this small and remote North Atlantic nation has caused a stir with the sheer number of acts coming from such a small nation. We sure could learn a thing or two! Was PRS (or the Scandinavian version of the PRS) the solution for their success? Probably not, but at least their government values the arts and invests significantly. After their financial crisis of 2008, in which their banking sector crashed, the government decided that banks were not worth saving, instead investing 65 million euros to build the Harpa, the stunning concert hall that opened in 2011. 80% of Icelandic students are enrolled in music courses and there are 60 music schools on the island, while locally there are no music schools, and students are scared away from the idea that music could be a real career. This is unfair on artists and musicians who see music as more than just a hobby, and dedicate their time, money and focus on specialising in performing, song-writing, or directing.

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