Simon Says #5: Raging against the machine
Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde rages against the inequalities of funding the pressing machine, and the unfairness of having to pay to get into your own party…
Like so many of the rules that govern us in everyday life, the music industry is littered with rituals which are, when analysed, faintly ridiculous. You don’t have to look hard for ideas and attitudes that cling on from the colonial days of yore: and similarly, our beloved music community stumbles clumsily along in its size-13 lead boots, shackled to the inglorious past.
We are really slow learners. While the technological revolution merrily engulfs us, our lives are seemingly us, our lives are seemingly made more efficient by smartphones and voice-activated home-help. Savvy, sophisticated even in our approach to listening to music in 2017, we are switching between digital and physical formats with relative ease. Turntables are being bought up quicker than they can make them, and not just by 55-plus men.
But behind this façade of progress, we really haven’t moved on from the 1960s. My word count won’t allow me to reel off all the stupidity I encounter on a daily basis as I circumnavigate this treacherous sea in my own little indie-dinghy, but I will try to leave your mouths a little wider than they ordinarily would be by the end.
When you start manufacturing records, as a label, you need to pay something called a ‘mechanical royalty’, which is paid to the music publishers for the use of those works. There are two levels of licence available – an AP1 and an AP2 – but as, say, a new indie label, with limited cash flow and resources (ie, 99% of indie labels), you would almost certainly have to have an AP2. The bigger companies, major labels for example, because of their might and the privilege their status allows, will be on an AP1. Okay so far? Now, when the small-label owner embarks on a run of 10,000 pieces of vinyl, he has to pay his mechanical royalty before he even presses it – which is 8.5% of the dealer price of every piece of that vinyl. Contrastingly, the major label don’t have to pay anything in advance; nor do they pay that royalty on what is manufactured. They pay their royalty on how many are shipped.
So, let me refresh that a little. If I make 10,000 vinyl records, I have to pay (let’s say) around 60 pence per piece – ie, £6,000 – as a mechanical royalty. A major label on the AP1 licence would pay only on how many copies were shipped. In other words, if they also make 10,000 copies but only sell three copies, they only pay £1.80. And then, only once they are invoiced in the future. The cash-strapped indie pays six grand and the major pays £1.80. Odds stacked against? Yeah. It’s one of these ‘rules’ I’ve never understood, and I can’t fathom how it’s still an unquestioned standard of the business.
Here’s another unfathomable. When a label signs a band, it pays them an advance; pays ‘tour support’ to enable them to go and play shows (ie, fronts all the costs for flights, hotels, van, etc, etc); pays for the videos, photos and the artwork, and much more besides. This is all standard stuff, and then the label recoups its costs, hopefully from record sales, etc. All fine and part of the game. So imagine the surprise when your band start to do well – all their hard graft and all your diligence and efforts behind the scenes are beginning to pay off, and that elusive, bigger London show gets announced, which then, of course, starts to sell well – and then you get an email from the booking agent, asking how many tickets you want. To buy. At full price.
Okay, so let me recap: the label invests in every aspect of this development, pays all the bills to help get the band known, pays for all the photos, the biographical content and videos that the promoter will be using to sell the shows. And then, when you want to invite press and radio people down to witness the band at this heightened level that you’ve all worked so hard for, you have to buy 100 tickets at the same price as the general public. And believe me, you will need 100. So for a £25 show at O2 Empire, say, the label would have to spend a further £2,500, just to take the media and their own staff down there.
It’s galling. I’m an artist, so believe me, I get both sides of some of these issues, and this is no ‘woe is me’ story. But, funnily enough, I don’t know any artist or manager who thinks it’s fair. Yet, for the most part, it remains an industry standard.
I’m delighted to have been a board member at the wonderful AIM, the Association Of Independent Music, during much of my time running Bella Union, and have learnt masses of stuff from the likes of Alison Wenham (one of the most impressive people I’ve come across in the business, I should add) and I am still learning. But I do crave a kind of revolution. Maybe it’s my age, but I’m feeling so militant again these days. I don’t like the status quo, and I want to see some real change. But I can’t enforce it alone. I’ll need some help. You up for it?
SIMON RAYMONDE was the bassist and keyboard player in Cocteau Twins and founded the independent record label Bella Union.