Broken Record founder Tom Gray on UK CMA report “the whole report just accepts the status quo”

Seasoned musician and Gomez’ guitarist Tom Gray has been one of the industry’s biggest advocates for more proportionate streaming pay for artists. Recently elected chair of the Ivors Academy, Gray has been at the forefront of the conversation due to the #BrokenRecord campaign, which has worked to highlight the inequalities that leave musicians with the smallest rewards for their work, and successfully lobbied the government for action. We spoke to Tom the day after the Competition and Markets Authority’s market study delivered a report into the current situation, but firstly – congratulations are in order… 

AMI: Firstly, congratulations on being made the chair of the Ivors Academy back in February of this year. How have you been finding the role so far?

Tom Gray: Yeah it’s been good. I’ve been involved in the Ivors for years and we’ve done so much work to progress and develop the organisation in that time, I’m lucky to have been able to take on the mantle when we’re in such a brilliant, healthy shape. We’ve got real diversity and quality in the senate and the board. That they chose me to chair it is obviously a great honour. I’m a sociable, talkative type and this is another great communication role. I get to be in the nexus of all these incredible people.

AMI: That you took the chair of the Ivors seems to have dovetailed well with the Broken Record campaign. It underlines just how pivotal fixing this unfair system is….

TG: Well exactly, I think the job came up and I thought if I could bring these things together it would add more weight to both roles. It was a win-win in that respect. It made a lot of people sit up. 

AMI:  On that topic, we saw this week that the CMA published their update paper of their big report into music streaming. What were your biggest takeaways from that report and their findings? 

TG: I think fundamentally the report indicates that there is a real problem with competition in this market – literally throughout the report that’s precisely what it says. But then it says, ‘we’re not going to do anything about it’. It’s quite depressing reading. 

Although they’ve done some homework when it comes to looking at competitiveness, the broad outline of the report effectively follows a major label story of what the industry is. It accepts that piracy was the cause of streaming, it accepts that streaming is a replacement for record sales. It accepts all of these things as assumptions without doing any of the work. That’s where it’s centred. Those assumptions are so built into the report, that we’re going to struggle to change it. 

AMI: It seems that the report was perhaps more consumer-focused as opposed to artist focused?

TG: Well we knew that going into it, it’s still trapped in that consumer-first ethos. I think that the CMA is going to have to engage with the actual world of working people at some point. The other thing that they haven’t picked up on or dealt with is the fact that there are so many kids using online publishing services such as Distro Kid and Ditto – are those people artists or are they consumers? 

Also it assumes things were always this bad, without any evidence. So there are these big overarching assumptions that are baked into it, which don’t have any basis in fact. They kind of are the major labels’ own narrative – their telling – of how the industry is. I think that’s fundamentally not great. Creators haven’t controlled the conversation here for years, so the consensus that’s repeated in countless periodicals and reports leans on this. It’s false. 

AMI: Perhaps they wanted to veer clear of recommending an overhaul of the system?

TG: Well I don’t think it is audacious to propose that, that’s what the DCMS Select Committee effectively said. It’s why the CMA were asked to act in the first place. They were literally told to look for a way to help. They keep saying there’s not enough profit. But a lot of companies are making more profit than they’ve ever made, and that isn’t in the report. I wonder if they’ve really scrutinised the books of many of these labels. 

The whole report just accepts the status quo, and looks for a way of keeping it in place. 

AMI: Do you think that this government has been particularly averse to dedicating too much effort and resources to the music industry? Do you think the music industry is perceived as something of little to no concern by the Conservatives?

TG: It’s hard to say – I don’t think the music industry has ever felt its been of any concern to any government, to be fair. One of the reasons why we’re in such a bad situation is because we’ve had so little attention. We haven’t had change in regulation since 2003 and those changes were just there to serve the major labels. We haven’t had a tip to artists since really the 1990s. That’s pretty phenomenal when you consider just how many changes in technology we’ve had since then. 

AMI: It seems like support and awareness for #BrokenRecord has certainly increased among musicians, many of which were probably unaware of how unfair their deals and relationships were. 

TG: One of the most curious parts of the report mentioned that artists are paid *this* amount, something like 16%, across the board. That doesn’t make any sense. I know people who made contracts in the sixties who are on 2 or 3%. What is the assumption based on, that states artists get 16%. Is that how much labels are paying to artists, or is it based on an assumed figure of what the rate of pay is now. What is that 16%? It’s completely misleading. 

AMI: Since the inception of #BrokenRecord, what’s the biggest movement you’ve seen from the ‘big three’ (Sony, Universal, Warner) in response?

TG: Well we had the wave of debt cancellations [Sony Music announced the cancellation of the debts of thousands of artists who were signed before the year 2000, triggering Universal Music Group and Warner to follow suit] which was the biggest win we’ve had. The report doesn’t even mention the fact that that’s caveated though. If you were optioned after 2000 on your contract, then you *don’t* get your debt cancelled. So in other words, if you were successful, you still owe. It’s curious to me that they don’t actually make note of that fact. It’s very undercooked. 

AMI: What do you think is the reason behind them towing the industry line here? 

TG: Probably because that’s what will give them a quiet life to be fair. There might be pressure in the system – whatever the reason, they’ve come up with the wrong answer.

AMI: One of the great things about the #BrokenRecord campaign is just how it’s increased awareness amongst artists who might not have been aware of just how they’re paid and how poor a lot of their deals are. Do you think in the future more artists will just boycott the label system entirely? 

TG: Yeah, if they can access money more readily and more easily, then yes they would. The problem is that pool of money and the risk associated with it. The report doesn’t refer to the fact that a lot of the risk is really put against the artist. It isn’t recoupment of just the advance, it’s recoupment of the whole of the recording of their album and other associated costs. The label isn’t absorbing as much of the risk as they’re making out in the report, that’s another thing. It’s all about status quo. This is the way it’s always been done.

AMI: Though streaming is clearly here to stay, do you think that fans of music could do more here to apply pressure? Switching services perhaps to the platforms that pay more?

TG: Maybe, but I think the truth is we need to win the political fight. This is crazy. We’ve literally got a report in front of us now which proves our point, which is that there’s very little competition in the market ‘artists are getting buggered and that’s ok thank you very much!’ 

Let’s not forget, the CMA are heavily implicated in allowing many of the mergers that created these behemoths. They even signed off on Sony buying AWAL a few months ago, I mean, the CMA is literally, actively saying ‘these companies own too much of it, and that’s fine’. That remarkable figure that 98% of ownership of some of the rights of the top one thousand singles, with 92% combined share of the recording rights is just staggering. That’s not a competitive market by any stretch of the imagination.

The American anti-trust services are far more progressive than us, I would take the British CMA report to their anti-trust people. That’s possible. If you’re coming at it from the angle of trying to achieve a different result, that report is damming.

AMI: I guess that’s the point though, they’ve purposefully avoided thinking about artists in this dynamic

TG: 2% of the profit of one of these global corporations is millions and millions and millions of pounds. It’s life changing-money.  It lauds the fact that artist have managed to get 1% more across the board. It’s just hilarious, it’s actually quite comical

AMI: I know you’ve mentioned that a shift towards something resembling a broadcast model would be a better fit for streaming, in an ideal world Tom, how would you like to see streaming platforms reconfigured?

TG: I’ve always said that some part of it should, I’m not saying that’s necessarily the solution. But some portion of the money should go directly to performing musicians. If there’s so much resistance to even that. What they’ve done is that they’ve built a system that’s quite hard to push over. They’ve established the rules. 

A lot of the resistance isn’t just based on them wanting to keep their money, but they also just want to keep the stability of the system that they’ve got. It’s classic organisational conservatism. It’s very hard to push that over in any way, even just by a few percent difference, people get protective. It’s pretty absurd.

AMI: It’s hard to imagine what their long-term vision of the future is going to look like, if the system doesn’t change are we facing a world where making music is just completely unviable. Will music dwindle as an art form?

TG: I think it’s already dwindling as an art form. I think that you’ve got a lot of people trying to make music, but back in the day if you wanted to earn a living as a jazz musician then you could make a career out of that. Being some kind of musician is harder today than it was, and everyone is chasing the commercial dollar. You have to get the money in. 

Will we ever have another Kate Bush? Probably not. Who is going to fund someone to stay in the studio and make magic. 

AMI: When they could just have a few thousand duplicates of the thing they know sells well…

TG: Or just make an AI spit it out… 

AMI: So, what’s next on your agenda Tom and what are your big objectives for the second half of the year?

TG: I think the next two weeks we’re going to be arguing the toss over this report. Then for me it’s just about trying to corral whatever this government is going to look like come September, engage with them, but also focus more squarely on that political change. That’s been my modus operandi anyway, the CMA report was kind of a fluke, all in all I can’t believe we got it. 

Photo credit: Kenny McKracken