Tuned out: Performing Rights Society gets it wrong

During the Covid-19 lockdown, online exercise and dance classes became a staple part of many people’s lives. As well as keeping us physically fit and healthy, they helped provide social interaction which supported mental wellbeing. Unable to offer face-to-face classes, exercise and dance instructors had needed to embrace online platforms such as Zoom or MS Teams.

Many instructors invested heavily in producing online content.  One issue they had to overcome was the online use of copyright music.  To use music in face-to-face classes, instructors need Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) credits and their venues require a music licence from the Performing Rights Society for music (PRS) The revenue collected pays royalties to PRS members.

Unfortunately, these licences were not designed for online use.

Before the lockdown self-employed instructors wishing to use music online would need to negotiate a licence with the individual publishers of each piece of music. This could cost thousands of pounds per track and take many weeks to resolve, making it totally impractical.  Therefore, the national governing body for group exercise, EMD UK along with other dance and exercise groups lobbied PRS and the government for an easier solution.

In response PRS provided an ‘Online Music Fitness Licence’ which could be purchased from them or other bodies like EMD UK.  The cost was reasonable at around £175.00 for 6 months and enabled the self-employed instructors to use copyright music with their online classes.

Then, on 30 June, PRS UK, with very little warning, decided not to extend the licence. They seemed to think that as the lockdown had been eased, exercise and dance classes could return to being face-to-face.

The trouble is that many people are not ready to return to face-to-face classes and, meanwhile, instructors have invested heavily in providing online content. A recent EMD UK survey showed that 50 per cent of group exercise instructors plan to offer classes online, as well as in-person, for the foreseeable future. Some participants cannot leave home because of caring responsibilities, disabilities or long-term health conditions. Some do not have any fitness facilities nearby, so online participation is ideal.

EMD UK and others have been lobbying PRS UK to re-instate the online music fitness licence and simplify music licencing arrangements. To back up their claims they conducted a survey of members (565 respondents) which showed the importance many instructors attach to being able to use copyright music online.

To date their pleas have fallen on deaf ears, with PRS UK refusing to budge from its position.

This seems a little strange as not only has the now-defunct licence benefited the exercise and dance industry, but it has also raised revenue for PRS UK to distribute to its members. By their actions they have forced many instructors to use royalty-free music whilst others have stopped running online classes and some have closed their businesses altogether.  This is unsatisfactory for the instructors, the participants and for the musicians who are missing out on much-needed royalties. There is also the risk that as instructors are forced to use royalty free music for their online classes, they might do the same for face-to-face provision, avoiding the need to hold any licence at all. This would further deplete valuable income for musicians.

Strangely the Musicians Union (MU) seemed unaware of this problem when I contacted them but eventually Naomi Pohl, the deputy general secretary told me,

 “My understanding is that artist and copyright music is still allowed for online workouts, but that the means of acquiring the rights has returned to the pre-pandemic process. I also understand that PRS for Music will shortly be issuing a consultation on the online music licence. The MU will of course be consulting its members and feeding our views in through that process. Many of our members are PRS members and royalty recipients so we engage in their consultations whenever we have the opportunity.” 

This of course completely misses the point. The pre-pandemic process was and is totally impractical for self-employed instructors and MU members will be losing much-needed revenue.

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

I spoke with Felicity, an exercise instructor from Somerset, about how this has affected her classes. She has asked us not to use her real name.

“I’ve been working as an exercise, movement and dance teacher for 16 years and for the last 12 years as a clinical exercise instructor. My interest in this career stems from my love of dance and music. I take great care and enjoyment in selecting appropriate and motivating music for my classes which is something that my participants have often positively commented on.”

“As the Covid-19 pandemic struck the UK in 2020, all my face-to-face classes stopped. At the time we thought that ‘normal service’ would return within a few weeks. How wrong we were! Needless to say, what followed was a period of great uncertainty. All my work had ceased with no way of knowing when community venues and leisure centres would reopen.”

“It was therefore an absolute lifesaver to discover and embrace the world of online classes. Initially I set it up for groups that didn’t require music like my cardiac rehabilitation group. I wasn’t going to use royalty-free music as it doesn’t have the quality or emotion that I am looking for. So I was delighted when I discovered through EMD UK that a special licence was to be implemented that would allow me to legitimately use ‘proper’ copyright music. I was more than happy to pay.”

“Now I could increase the scope of the classes I could provide, including dance and other choreographed classes where the emphasis is ‘exercise to music’. This is so important to govern the tempo of movement. This is especially true with my senior classes for frailer adults who are limited to seated exercise. The use of some favourite music from their past triggers memories and you can see smiles appearing and spirits being lifted. This really helps with their motivation.”

“I have always been happy to pay a reasonable sum to use licensed music as the musicians who create the material that brings so much joy to so many rightly deserve to be paid.”

“Imagine my dismay to learn that at the end of June 2021 the licence would not be continued, and I would be unable to hold online classes to original music. Although it had been sold as a temporary fix, we all thought due to its popularity it would be extended and that the extra revenue it was creating for the music industry would ensure its future.

Unfortunately, PRS must have thought that as face-to-face classes had now resumed, every instructor would have snapped back to the old ways. Of course, this was not the case as many leisure centres didn’t reopen and social distancing measures made some classes uneconomical.”

“I have opted to have a hybrid approach, returning to some face-to-face classes but continuing online for others. In the end I decided to purchase some royalty- free music to try out. I find the range of styles is limited: mainly computer-generated mixes. Whilst this ‘muzak’ at least sets the tempo, my participants very much preferred the copyright material with its authentic atmosphere.”

“It irritates me that PRS has seemingly failed to do any research into the needs of their customers, in this case fitness instructors. What most baffles me is that an organisation which claims to work to ensure that performing artists receive their deserved payment for work, is failing them too. The only people who are benefiting from the PRS decision are the companies that produce the generic unlicensed music which is a great shame for the musicians.”

Felicity’s views are very much backed up by the EMD UK survey, with many respondents expressing great concern about the current situation.

It is clear that PRS UK have made a big mistake. Their decision to withdraw the online licence is bad for instructors, bad for dance class participants and bad for the musicians they and the MU are supposed to represent.  The Performing Rights Society needs urgently to right this wrong.