Thursday 02 April 2020

No such thing as free

This blog first appeared on Malta Today 

The recent issue which arose over PRS rights (the royalties which are due to musicians to whom the song belongs, every time you play their music in public) has opened up the conversation yet again about the Arts and the right to payment.

As explained on their website, PRS Malta, “represent the rights of these members (and the members of 120 affiliated societies in nearly 150 countries around the world) by licensing organisations to play, perform or make available music. We distribute royalties to those members and societies fairly and efficiently.”

The way it works is that an establishment needs to purchase the required license from the PRS in order to play music at their place of business. Radio stations are the most obvious entities which need to pay for this license, but so are other businesses, from restaurants, to hair salons, to shops and even workplaces, in fact, any place “which plays music for customers, staff or both through radio, TV, MP3, computer speakers or live events”.

The Performing Rights Society is nothing new, but to hear some people talk, it sounds like they have never heard of it. That is probably because, to date, they have got away with playing commercial music via radio stations at their business establishments and not paying a cent for it. And yet, they should be paying, because like many other artists, the way musicians earn their money is not as easy as it is for other professions.
You would not dream of asking for the services of a lawyer, a doctor or an architect without asking him, ‘what do I owe you?’. The same goes for anyone who comes to do maintenance work around your house. Artistic copyright, however, especially when it comes to music, is often not considered on the same lines, perhaps because it’s such an intangible thing. “Why should I pay for music coming from a radio station”, some business owners were arguing, “isn’t it being broadcast for free?” Well, if you are listening to the radio in your home or car that is one thing, but once the music is being made available to a wider audience, that is considered a public performance. And anyway, how on earth do they think that musicians earn money for the songs they write, apart from selling CDs?

I believe the reluctance to pay for PRS betrays the general attitude which is exhibited towards intellectual property in general. It is almost a belittlement of people’s talent, as if to imply that the Performing Arts are really nothing but a cute little hobby, and why should we pay you for it? It is already bad enough that earning money from music is Malta is extremely difficult and has only been managed by a handful of people (mostly because they have had to “sell out” and perform at weddings, hotels and restaurants), why should we make it even worse by begrudging them what is rightfully due?

It is not only the artistic talent of musicians which is treated so disdainfully, however. Almost everyone who is an artist or has some kind of creative gift tends to be dismissed in a way which other professionals never are. From photographers, to graphic designers, to writers and actors, as well as those in the local TV and film industries, the attitude is almost one of condescending indulgence rather than respect. This can be seen in the way that people are always expecting things for free, and look at the artist concerned askance when she/he tells them that he does not work for free. Why should they? And yet, it happens over and over again, where they are asked to do something “to get exposure” or promotion, when what they really want is, you know, to get paid, in recognition and appreciation for the work they have done and in compensation for the time and effort exerted – as happens in any other field.

The Arts, in the wider sense of the word which covers all types of talent, are often not considered “real work” but are still looked upon as charming little hobbies which you probably do on the side in your spare time. Granted, there are many who can only afford to do things part-time because they cannot make a living from their talent due to Malta’s size constraints. But even if it is only part-time, they are using their creativity and talent which should be fairly remunerated. There is a reason why we are willing to pay plumbers, mechanics, builders or any other person with specific skills when we need to have something done which we are incapable of doing ourselves. So why should artists be any different?

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