YouTube vs PRS: whoever wins, it's bad news for musicians

Whichever organisation prevails, musicians are going to lose

You've got to hand it to Google: when it threw its toys out of the pram over its dispute with PRS For Music, it immediately won the PR war. On blogs, boards and Twitter the consensus is: hurrah for Google! It's sticking it to The Man!

Is it really? Some commenters have compared PRS For Music to the RIAA, but they couldn't be more wrong. PRS For Music represents songwriters and composers, not major record labels, and for many artists they're the only source of income. If U2 covers an obscure indie band's song or Radio 1 plays it, PRS For Music ensures the songwriter gets paid.

That said, PRS is pretty good at making enemies. Its demands for licenses from small businesses raise hackles, it caused an outcry with its original license fees for podcasts (something that's since been resolved), and Pandora blamed it for demanding fees that the fledgling service couldn't possibly afford to pay.

So whose side should we be on? We don't doubt that Google is demanding special treatment, and while it says that YouTube can't afford to pay what PRS wants it's conveniently forgetting about the many billions the rest of Google is bringing in.

TV channels, radio stations and concert venues accept licenses as part of the cost of doing business, so why shouldn't Google? If it were to set up a radio station and demand a lower rate than any other radio station, PRS for Music would quite rightly tell Google to get stuffed.

But YouTube isn't a radio station. It's a whole new medium. For now at least, Google is finding it hard to make it pay. If Google's telling the truth and PRS For Music wants money that's massively out of proportion to the sums Google's making, then the rates are daft: it's better, surely, to have 10% of something than 100% of nothing.

Ultimately, though, the spat is like watching two bald men fighting over a comb. On one side we have a multi-billion dollar corporation demanding that musicians pay the price for its inability to find a properly profitable business model; on the other we have a rights agency that appears to be stuck in a pre-internet age and can't or won't accept that online streaming simply doesn't bring in the same amount of money as traditional broadcasting.

Yes, other organisations pay up - so, for example, Spotify has the appropriate licenses in the countries where it operates - but that doesn't necessarily mean the fees are fair. For now, Spotify is cheerfully burning through investors' money as it builds a business. Don't be surprised if, when that money runs out, Spotify's free service becomes the next high-profile casualty of royalty rates that online services can't afford to pay.

Whichever organisation prevails, musicians are going to lose. If PRS For Music caves in then Google will pay less to musicians; if it doesn't and the videos remain blocked, then musicians won't get paid at all.

Oscar Wilde famously described fox hunting as the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. People whose mortgage payments depend on royalties may well feel the same about this particular battle.


You might also like: Outdated music industry deserves no Govt help

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Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now and her next book, about pop music, is out in 2025. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind.