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Is it time for small artists to quit big music?

Sony Music’s attempted purchase of up-and-coming rival label AWAL has signalled a dangerous time for musicians’ rights. Are UK artists doomed?

‘I know it seems like I’m very loud about this,’ Taylor Swift said in an interview with Billboard. ‘But it’s because someone has to be.’

Swift, who signed her first label at the age of 15, has been re-recording her own music since December 2019 — when media titan Scooter Braun purchased her independent Nashville label, Big Machine, for $300 million, and then sold it for $450 million some 17 months later.

Every track in her discography, from her 2006 debut album to 2019’s Lover, was now in the hands of a stranger. So the 31-year-old multi-award-winning global singer-songwriter signed elsewhere and took her music reproduction rights with her.

To start things off, the pop artist released a re-recording of her much-loved 2008 album, Fearless, which featured the song that propelled her to stardom, Love Story. While some might have looked on this as a way to make more money, Swift said she was purely setting her heart on ensuring every album ahead of Braun’s takeover was hers again.

She wasn’t going to let a major label — or whoever owned it — dictate her rights.

‘New artists, producers and writers need work, and they need to be likable and get booked in sessions, and they can’t make noise — but if I can, then I’m going to,’ she told Billboard.

She’s not the only one who’s spoken up about this before. American singer-songwriter Prince, who famously told Rolling Stone that he felt like a slave to Warner Records, said: ‘When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave. I don’t own Prince’s music, and if you don’t own your masters, your masters own you.’

While Swift is setting a new precedent, not every small artist can afford to take the risk of splitting from the monopoly that is the music industry. The UK, for example, is dominated by three major labels — Universal Music, Sony Music and Warner Music.

Known as the ‘big three’, they’re also the labels with the most significant market power in the global music industry.

This year, however, Sony Music has been in hot water with the UK’s competition authority, after it tried to purchase AWAL, a DIY platform for musicians to upload their own music. The deal, which cost Sony €365 million, has already been approved in Austria and the US — the only other countries that it affected.

The UK’s competition and markets authority claimed that AWAL was the only label outside of the major three that stood a chance at levelling competition in the country.

Sony Music argued, however, that this investigation was ‘perplexing’ and was opened based on an ‘incorrect’ understanding of AWAL’s position in the UK. It added that it ‘strongly’ felt that the purchase of the platform was key to AWAL’s future success.

If Sony Music completes the purchase, what will this mean for artists?

For starters, Sony will now own work uploaded via AWAL’s platform. Also, any chance at dissolving the triopoly of Universal, Warner, and Sony will disappear. It might take years before anyone else is able to stand up to them competitively.

And yes, you guessed it, artists in the UK will be, yet again, in a crisis fuelled by the public’s obsession with easy and accessible streaming avenues.

It’s obviously not as simple as boycotting certain services or musicians. Unless an artist streams their music on an independent platform, we can’t be certain that it hasn’t been copyrighted by the ‘big three’.

But it’s not all doomed. On Wednesday, MPs called on the country’s competition authority to investigate the ‘pitiful returns’ that most musicians have to put up with as a result of streaming.

MPs demanded that the labels be probed for the way their dominance might be benefitting them at the expense of independent labels and self-releasing artists.

The call came after the government released a damning report on the music industry in July, which found that only 13% of revenue goes to an artist, while 42% goes to labels and 30% to streaming services.

The government is speaking up for musicians. It’s taken scary statistics and possibly the wipe out of any potential competition for it to happen, but it’s happened.

Swift has said that the world is ‘galloping toward a new industry’ but not thinking about recalibrating the financial structures that look after producers and writers.

‘But,’ she says. ‘There’s power in writing your music.’

Every week, Swift receives several demands for use of her tracks in adverts and trailers. The reason she started re-recording her music was so that she could have it live on.

‘I do want it to be in movies, I do want it to be in commercials,’ she said. ‘But I only want that if I own it.’