Streaming Sites Should Be Much More Ethical With How They Platform UK Music

Words: Jesse Bernard
Photography: Quann

Historically, black artists and musicians in the UK have had to go independent due to alienation and racial discrimination from the music industry. Artists such as Smiley Culture, who was allegedly killed by police in 2011, remained independent throughout the entirety of his career. His music isn’t available on streaming platforms, likely out of respect for his memory, and this ensures that his legacy isn’t consumed by a need to profit from his music. Not all artists, whether dead or imprisoned, have experienced this and more recently, with the criminalisation of UK drill, there is a question of ethics when it comes to who profits from music when artists find themselves in such predicaments.

When it was announced that Form 696, a risk assessment form, would be scrapped by the Met Police in 2017, it was believed that the targeting of black-led events at live music venues and cancellation of shows would cease. Nearly two years on, the form isn’t as widely discussed, however in recent years, a number of artists have had the police cancel shows due to fears of inciting violence and public disorder. Which has led many to believe that Form 696 hasn’t been scrapped but simply made more covert.

Drill rappers such as K-Trap, Skengdo x AM, Loski and SL have all wrestled with authorities when it comes to their live shows, with some being cancelled. Skengdo x AM, in particular, are unable to perform certain songs but they still remain on streaming platforms racking up plays. Evidently, they are still earning from those streams but it’s the platforms that benefit greatly due to there not being viable music consumption alternatives. In the analog days of listening, artists were able to receive greater royalties as individual sales were worth far more than they are today. It also meant that profits from each sale would often go to the family of the deceased or imprisoned, but that isn’t the case when physical sales and distribution has declined in the past twenty years.

Artists with PRS membership have some protection, where the organisation collect royalties for up to seven years. If an official successor is appointed during this period, PRS will also collect royalties for the duration of the successor’s membership or the life of the copyright. While that ensures artists and their families are able to continue earning royalties, many underground artists don’t have PRS memberships and it’s less so that the public shouldn’t have access to the music but more so for those unsigned, there should be the opportunity for their art to be stored in a public archive to ensure they aren’t later exploited by labels and streaming platforms.

These are murky waters being trodden, particularly when you consider someone like Crazy Titch—who is still serving a life sentence for murder and won’t be out until he’s in his 50s—two of his songs, “Silencer Freestyle” and “Singalong”, appear on streaming platforms, including Spotify and Google Play. Streaming platforms receive most of their revenue from subscriptions and ads, however, with an artist like Unknown T currently on remand after being charged for suspicion of murder, his label, Universal Music Group, are still benefiting the most from his music. It’s not clear whether labels invest in legal defence for artists, but with profits decreasing for creators, it’s a matter of morality and major labels should take it upon themselves to offer that support. The onus shouldn’t be placed on individual consumers to ensure that they’re listening to music ethically, especially at a time where the industry has stripped away any cost-effective alternatives to consumption.

Artist profiles become digital cemeteries and a place of mourning for fans, but at the time of a passing or arrest, there is often a surge in streams and plays. South London rapper Cadet, who tragically passed away earlier this year following a car accident, was signed to his own label: Underrated Legends. Fortunately, his family members were appointed as directors in April, data which can be found on Companies House. Ultimately, this has ensured that ownership of Cadet’s music remains firmly within his family’s hands, and although his passing was tragic and unexpected, they don’t have to deal with any further legalities since he owned all of his masters. This isn’t always the case, but it certainly gives artists something to consider—although they shouldn’t have to.

For a lot of young black men who find themselves imprisoned or killed, the concept of future is a distant idea. With that said, artists committed to starting careers in music see one for themselves and it’s less so that their futures are uncertain but there is no clear path when they now have to handle hypervisibility. Out of necessity, many black artists in the UK are either signed to independents or run their own labels, giving them greater control over their finances, should they encounter legal issues or more dire consequences. Nothing ever really dies when it reaches the internet, and once a piece of music exists on there, it’s near impossible to completely scrub. With arts and culture funding decimated in the age of austerity, archiving underground music and cataloguing it for public use appears as though it’s a distant dream, but it would allow for communities to learn more about their own local musical history and where it sits within the wider cultural context.

At a time where music consumption is fleeting and habitual, such archives would allow for the art to be valued in a much more experiential way. Like all art, underground music created by black musicians can be preserved, archived and made accessible to the public, which TRENCH has done beautifully through its HERITAGE series. It’s a communal effort that requires what can often feel like a life service. Nevertheless, it ensures that the works of young black people in Britain are immortalised beyond commercialism.

Posted on October 30, 2019