IMPALA’s Helen Smith talks state of the independents and ‘the promise of streaming’

Brussels, 20 June 2019

This interview was conducted by journalist Lars Brandle and was originally published in The Industry Observer.

 

Helen Smith is a tougher fighter than you.

Born and raised in Scotland, Smith has fought, and won, many bruising encounters on the behalf of independent music community.

Smith drives IMPALA’s key strategies as executive chair, covering off everything in the political, commercial and promotional spheres. In an historic vote earlier this year, the European parliament adopted a new copyright directive in the digital age, to address the value gap and introduce a new right for press publishers and set new rules for artists and writers in their relations with labels and publishers. Smith and her colleagues at Impala, which counts over 4,000 members, including key indies and national peak bodies, had a big hand in it.

Smith, who served as AIM’s London-based director of business affairs Helen Smith in the early noughts before relocating to Brussels with IMPALA, will deliver a keynote speech at the Indie-Con summit next month in Adelaide. TIO got in early for a chat.

TIO: Helen, an early, cheery welcome to Australia. Will this be your first visit and what are you expecting from the place? When Alison Wenham visited for Bigsound some years ago, she asked me about the chances of taking an afternoon trip to the Great Barrier Reef. No chance. Word of warning…it’s a massive place!

Helen Smith: Thanks Lars, this will be my second visit, so I have an idea of the scale, but still that story rings very true – I have been looking at the map… On my first trip (a few years ago…) I flew into Sydney, went to the blue mountains, had a couple of days on the Barrier Reef but couldn’t go out due to bad weather, then onto Kakadu national park. I loved it. This time it’s great to be able to explore a little of the other side of the country.

You’ve worked in Brussels for many years, lobbying on behalf of the indies. What does a typical week for you look like?

There’s not really a typical week, which makes it interesting…. IMPALA covers a wide range of political and commercial issues, anything that might impact our members really. So you can be working intensely on a longtime project like the EU copyright directive and all of a sudden something big comes up, like the acquisition of the last part of EMI Publishing by Sony/ATV late last year… And in those cases you have to react very quickly. To try and answer your question of what an average week might look like, I would say: calls and other exchanges with members, working on one of our key projects like access to finance, using social media daily to get our messages out and exchange info and news, getting out a statement on a hot topic (copyright, competition, latest IMPALA award announcement, finance), meetings with EU officials, liaising with sister organisations, like Merlin, WIN and AIR. Also, meeting with the broader music sector to discuss political and commercial issues. I also travel a fair bit throughout the year for board meeting, panels and keynotes. Two weeks ago, I was in Barcelona, last week in Cannes, this week in NYC and soon in Australia of course, which will be the highlight for me personally.

You’ve also enjoyed many victories over the years. What stands out as among the biggest?

Well, it won’t come as a surprise but I’m obviously going to have to mention the copyright directive that was adopted in April. We’re talking about a piece of legislation that was on the table for more than three years. We had some of the richest companies in the world lobbying fiercely against the directive, not always playing fair… Of course we were not alone fighting in favour of these new rules, but we certainly played a key role as we account for 80% of all new releases and that means you have a compelling story to tell. Now, for the first time anywhere in the world, we have a legislation clarifying that user-upload platforms are covered by copyright, and need to negotiate licences. This will improve competition and everyone will benefit: artists, labels, platforms and other music services, as well as citizens of course.

Other successes include a European Union loan guarantee scheme to leverage more finance in the sector. It’s exclusively for small and medium sized companies, so perfect for the independent music sector. It works by having different banks guarantee loans, all backed up by the EU. That was also years in the making. In the end it was down to decision makers seeing music and other cultural sectors in a new way – as proper contributors to the European economy with jobs that aren’t relocating anywhere.

I should also mention IMPALA’s competition work. That includes the court case we won in the first ever class action type of case over ten years ago, as well as the remedies in the Universal/EMI merger. UMG was required to sell two thirds of EMI and have its digital deals monitored for ten years in order to secure the EU’s approval. Our intervention led to a deal with WMG and the independent sector was able to buy assets to the equivalent of a significant chunk of Parlophone. That was done with Merlin and was a very long complex process, and was the first of its kind in any sector.

Lastly, what I also really found inspiring is what we did for our fifteenth birthday with the Young Label Spotlight project. We profiled the work of five labels under fifteen per month during the project, working with labels from across Europe. Next year it’s hard to believe IMPALA will be twenty…

How does the ratification of the Copyright Directive stack up.

You know, first it was really all about changing the tide. Until a few years ago most discussions in Brussels were going in the direction of “weaker” copyright rules, through more exceptions and even the extension of safe harbours. We thought it would take a lot of work to convince the EU that this narrative needed closer inspection, but then they saw the figures… Everyone we spoke to agreed that something needed to be done to address the value gap and so the EU proposed new rules as part of a broader reform of copyright. Discussions with the parliament and member states started and again there was a surprising level of unanimity that reform was needed, even though not everyone agreed on the detail. That’s when the anti-copyright campaign became very aggressive. Parliamentarians were spammed, sent misinformation, and many supporters of the copyright directive even received emails containing physical and other threats. And in the last few months YouTube used its network to spread anti-copyright propaganda to Youtubers and Youtube users. We asked for access to put across an alternative view but that didn’t materialise.

This raises big questions with regards to democracy. Should those with deep pockets and a huge captive audience be allowed to influence the democratic process using that kind of tactics? We’re talking about one directive at EU level here, but what will it be next time? This has enormous consequences, and there are already calls for more controls and indeed sanctions.

We also need to acknowledge the great job parliamentarians and other decision-makers did on copyright by standing up to be counted. It was a completely unique case. What was also incredible was the way artists spoke out against this backdrop. Just one example is the recording of the Snow Patrol song “Just Say Yes” that got attacked instantly. Debbie Harry did a powerful op-ed in the Guardian and the list goes on… AIR and other organisations also helped by underlining how important the outcome was outside of Europe.

Of course, the story’s not over as we are now entering the implementation period at national level. Member states have 2 years to transpose the directive into their national laws, and we can expect the anti-copyright campaigning to continue. IMPALA will monitor the process closely to ensure a consistent application of the rules across Europe.

You’ve fought against consolidation for so long. We’re down to three majors. Twenty years ago, it was six. Is it realistic to think these three could become two? Or, god help us, one?

Well, when we opposed the Universal/EMI merger, we thought Universal was already too big, and the EU itself came to the same conclusion, even though it let them grow a bit more. More recently Sony was allowed to acquire EMI fully without even going to a detailed review process, but that was also because the EU had already secured remedies when Sony bought the first chunk a few years back. I doubt very much that a move from three to two majors would be allowed, not after the precedents already set. What is a concern is that all of them keep buying independent labels and distributors. Also currently being reported is that suitors for Universal include Google and Tencent. The resulting level of vertical integration would pose considerable risks for competitors and citizens. We can’t imagine any regulator in Europe or elsewhere approving such a move and we’ll continue to monitor that very closely.

One of the arguments about the majors and their market power had been about access. Has streaming levelled the playing field? Or just changed the field for indies?

Streaming holds the promise of a more open market, and the WIN report on the performance of the independent music sector last year shows that we are going towards a more level playing field indeed. In 2018, streaming revenues for independent companies grew by 46% in 2017 (to $3.1bn), and now accounts for just under 44% of the sector’s overall income, compared to 33% in 2016. This shows how well the independents continue to grow their digital business. In 2018, the sector was able to increase its global market share to 39.9% in 2017. That’s an increase of 11.3% compared to 2016 (from $6.2bn in 2016 to $6.9bn in 2017). In addition, the independent sector outperformed both the majors (+9.7% ) and the overall music market (10.2%) in 2017, making it the fastest growing sector of the global recorded music industry this year. We also know that Merlin’s members over-perform on premium tiers of streaming services.

At the same time there are barriers and most of the hits are still from artists signed to majors. It’s a vicious circle. When you have 3 music companies who together command the top ten singles and albums, this gives you great power over music services, radios and their playlists.

So the situation improved, sure, but access remains an issue.

What are the big fights ahead for the Indies?

That would be the implementation of the copyright directive at national level and the sale of Universal. Both will have very important repercussions over the entire music sector for the next several years at least. But who knows what else might come up, you never know… That’s on top of working with platforms and other music services to grow the streaming market as much as possible. I would like to think that’s a shared mission to make the digital environment fair and sustainable, rather than a fight…

Staying with indies and streaming platforms, do you get a sense that the indie sector is in good health right now? And Australia in particular?

Streaming has taken over in Australia as it has elsewhere. As for the health of the sector, the WIN results are telling. With 39.9% of the total market, the fastest growing sector of the global recorded music industry as already mentioned, yes, the independent sector is definitely in good health. Let’s dig a bit more into their results on digital. Merlin, the global digital rights agency for the independent label sector, reports that their members’ distribution revenue has grown eightfold since 2012 to reach its first billion in 2017, and $1,5bn in 2018. That’s big, but it’s not all. Last year, two thirds said their overall business increased in 2017 – up from no less than 66% in 2016. Digital revenues currently represent the bulk of their overall business income, with audio streaming accounting for the bulk of these digital revenues (compared to 20% in 2014).

Now of course the streaming debate is broadening… What is the best distribution model for the independent sector? Would the answer be the same in Australia and elsewhere? Do we need to switch to user centric? What about pro temporis to ensure classical and jazz don’t lose out? How do we ensure fans and artists can reach each other among the white noise? Are we really delivering diversity and choice online, or is it an illusion? We need to do our work as leaders to continue levelling the playing field and ensure we evolve in an environment that is sustainable for everyone. All artists are born equal and this is our chance to make sure that means something in the digital world.

Finally, what do you plan to speak on when you’re down here in Aus?

The latest news from Europe, what it’s like to be attacked for sticking up for copyright, what the sector is looking at next. How we move forward as leaders. How we share our experiences and what there is to take on board at Indie-Con, hearing more from the Australian independents and the music market in general. We all have lots to learn from each other…

Organised by AIR, the annual Indie-Con summit will take place July 25-26 at Lot Fourteen in Adelaide. For more information visit www.air.org.au.

 

About Lars Brandle

Lars Brandle has reported at the frontline of the international music industry for almost 20 years. A former musician, Lars joined the American music trade “bible” Billboard in 2000 and went on to serve as Global News Editor, based in London. Now Billboard’s Australia correspondent and senior writer with The Industry Observer, Lars’ voice has been heard on CNN, the BBC and ABC, American Public Media's Marketplace and South Africa's EastCoast Radio, and he has spoken at Midem in Cannes, Music Matters in Singapore, Amsterdam Dance Event, London's City Showcase and at industry gatherings on both sides of the Tasman. His works have been published by Reuters, Media Week, Spin, and The Hollywood Reporter, and he has featured as a pundit in the Australian Financial Review, Business Review Weekly and Britain’s The Independent.

About IMPALA

IMPALA was established in April 2000 to represent European independent music companies. 99% of Europe’s music companies are SMEs. Known as the “independents”, they are world leaders in terms of innovation and discovering new music and artists - they produce more than 80% of all new releases and account for 80% of the sector's jobs. IMPALA's mission is to grow the independent music sector, return more value to artists, promote cultural diversity and entrepreneurship, improve political access and modernise perceptions of the music sector.

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