Most of the music we listen to is made by session musicians. These rental guns are experts in their field, highly sought after, and often bring a unique sound – that little bit extra that helps make recording what it is.
Whether we are at home or in our cars, at the gym, in the shops, in the café or in the pub, recorded performances form the soundtrack of our lives. This soundtrack includes music composed by hired freelance instrumentalists and vocalists whose contributions are essential to the appeal and quality of these recordings.
Although we can enjoy the final product seemingly for free, any music that is streamed or communicated to a listener is licensed by the owner of that recording and a fee is paid for that license. Collection agencies such as CAPP collecting these licenses and distributing the royalties to the rights holders of the recorded recordings.
Does Australia value musicians?
Historically, Australian session musicians have had no economic rights to their recorded performances beyond a basic session fee – an unregulated fee which, in real terms, has been receding for decades.
While many other countries support performers’ rights over ongoing royalties, Australia is one of the few developed economies that does not. This deprived our musicians of access to important sources of income at home and abroad, limited our trade with other countries and positioned us as an outlier.
We are perceived as a country that does not value musicians as they do elsewhere in the world, a perception that must change if we are to inspire the next generation to continue making music.
So how did we get here?
In 1996, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) drafted the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treatywhich granted performers economic rights for their recorded performances and “equitable remuneration” when these performances were monetized.
Since then, free trade agreements, such as the one between Australia and the United States in 2004, have required the parties to sign the treaty, which our government did in 2007. Unfortunately, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the time, Alexander Downer Article 15.1 deliberately excluded of the agreement, leaving Australian musicians without the same rights enjoyed by musicians in other parts of the world.
For example, in the UK, US, most of Europe, as well as Mexico, Brazil, Canada and Japan, performers are awarded a percentage of licensing revenue.
According to Peter Thoms, board member of British collection agency PPL,
[…] in the UK, PPL royalties are split 50/50 between labels and performers. A featured artist, who will be contracted to the label, gets a larger artist share, but session players also share that revenue. Players who have been active on many registrations receive large sums each year. This helps to make session play more viable and is a fair recognition of their contribution.
However, when the same recordings are subsequently released in Australia, these musicians are not entitled to any performance royalties. This has led countries like the UK to follow our approach and no longer pay session musicians or artists on Australian recordings when released in the UK.
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The brain drain of Australian musicians
The added peculiarity is that Australian artists with international appeal now frequently record outside Australia to enable them to qualify for European royalties, which are paid on a eligible territory base.
As Australia is no longer an eligible territory, Australian artists are motivated to record in the UK and elsewhere to ensure they can claim fair compensation in major overseas markets.
The WIPO Treaty was intended to “provide adequate solutions to issues raised by economic, social, cultural and technological developments”, all of which have evolved enormously since 1996. If Australia is to keep up with these changes, it must stop lag behind and adopt Article 15.1.
This has the potential to increase productivity in the recording economy, including revenue from exports, and to develop a sector which currently relies heavily on live music. Increasing passive income streams would also help develop and sustain the careers of young musicians and support performers through future crises.
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What can we do to solve this problem?
The stream free trade Agreement between Australia and the United Kingdom gives us a political opening for this conversation. The agreement calls for a discussion on measures to ensure “adequate” remuneration for performers and record producers. If we truly value our musicians, the match must be fair.
All performers, classic and contemporary, and record producers should be having this conversation right now, engaging with other stakeholders and raising awareness.
If the Australian government and the recording industry recognize the prevailing conditions for musicians around the world and embrace the principle of fair compensation, we can begin to rebuild the structures that support payments to performers in the country and to the stranger.
By valuing our musicians more, we will add value to the sector, with better economic regulation and new systems connecting all Australian musicians to wider markets.
So the next time you hear music playing, think of the session musicians and producers whose skills helped make this song a hit – the drummer on X, the trombone player on Y, or the vocalist on that commercial. music that has been touring for 20 years – and ask someone close, why are Australian musicians denied the fair compensation that exists in so many other parts of the world?