Tom Watson: Speech to Musician's Union Conference

Hello everyone, good afternoon. It is a genuine pleasure to be with you today. And it’s a particular pleasure because as a kid I wanted to be a professional musician. I played a brief starring role as a member of the third violins in the Sladen Middle school orchestra.

I never made it as a musician because I lacked perseverance, resilience, discipline and skill. That’s why I ended up being a trade  union official and politician.

I’m here to bring a message of support from the Labour Party and to talk about my work as you Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. 

Before I start, I want to pay tribute to your outgoing general secretary, John Smith. This might feel like an ending, but here’s a word of advice from the deputy leader of the Labour Party – bearded white men around retirement age are all the rage at the moment – so John – your career might just be taking off.

And John has been a powerful advocate for this union and its members in many important areas. He’s been a member of the TUC’s Executive Committee, President of the International Federation of Musicians, Vice Chair of the British Copyright Council, and most recently, chair of PPL.

John, I wish you well, and Horace – congratulations on your election. I know you will follow John with the same guiding principle – that the people who make our music should earn good money and have their fair share of the expanding growth of Britain’s music industry. And I hope my team will form a strong working with relationship with your team. Particularly as a couple of them are musicians themselves.

Rosena Allin-Khan my Shadow Sports Minister actually turned down a record contract with Sony to go to medical school. Kevin Brennan, my deputy, is in 4-piece band called MP4 which has a regular gig on Matt Forde’s political TV show. He’s also a proud member of the MU.

I don’t have to tell anyone in this room that Music is something this country does fantastically well. That’s not jingoistic boasting, it is a simple fact – our live music industry is the best in the world. 

This summer– the summer of that tremendous, heartbreaking One Love festival, of Glastonbury, even of the election where music and musicians played such a role – reminds us of that.

Our music is admired everywhere. And that’s something that will only become more and more important as we tackle thechallenges of Brexit. So that's what I want to talk to you about today. What I want to do, what we can do together, to safeguard that central, privileged place.

I do worry about some of the things threatening our music industry. Sites like Viagogo, for example, who sell tickets for many times their face value to fans who just want to see their favourite artists. They make money but none of it goes back to the music makers and creators.

And the perfect storm that Michael Dugher talked to you about yesterday:

The collapse of creative education in our schools because of the Government’s obsessive focus on a narrow set of ‘academic’ subjects to the detriment of all others. Which has seen the number of music teachers in our schools fall by 600 since 2010 and the number of music GCSE entries fall by nearly 10% over that same period.

In a world where technology and automation are transforming the way we live and work, we need our children to be more creative, not less. Robots might be taking even highly skilled jobs, but they’ll never match our creativity. That’s why we need creative subjects at the heart of our school curriculum. Jeremy and I are committed to doing that. And music is key.

In Japan every child has to learn an instrument as part of the national curriculum. We want that for our children. There’s increasing evidence that shows learning to play a musical instrument improves a child’s comprehension of other academic disciplines.

That’s why our next manifesto will build on the commitments of this one and offer a meaningful musical education to every child in the country, starting in primary school. So a great musical education and all the benefits that brings, academic and otherwise, aren’t just the preserve of the privileged. But the right of every child.

We want to work with you to deliver that. I want to have a ready to go plan for day one of the next Labour government and I want musicians to be at the heart of it. And there’s another, perhaps even greater challenge. Which concerns the most basic building blocks of the industry – fair pay. Fair terms and conditions.

The music industry has been through many years of uncertainty and turbulence, with record sales declining and profitability under threat. Each wave of new technology has created huge disruption to the jobs and conditions of musicians. And none more so than in the past ten years. 

But we’re now seeing a more robust business model emerging in the music industry. Streaming has given us access to agreater variety of music than at any other time in human history. Streaming has opened up music like never before and it finally feels like we’ve arrived at a model that increases access while creating revenue. But it's only going to work if the artists are properly paid. And right now, they’re not.

Your music is professionally made and you should be professionally paid. The analysis is simple, the remedy more complex. The monopolistic power of the big tech platforms need to be challenged at the same time as the protectionist instinct of the major labels. Both sections of the industry need to realise that music makers need a greater share of the streaming pie.

That’s why the Labour Party supports the MU’s vital “Work Not Play” campaign – we can’t normalise professional musicians working for free. That’s the only sane thing to do if you want this new business model to sustain, if you want our music industry to carry on beating the world. 

Earlier this week I read Horace’s interview in MusicWeek. He talked about there being three categories of artists in the digital age, each facing different challenges. Artists that signed before the digital age, artists that signed afterwards, and non-featured artists.  

I know we’ve got many of each in this room today. Artists signing now know the lay of the digital landscape but still suffer from the huge imbalance of negotiating power between labels and new artists. Aside from the lucky few who’ve managed to renegotiate, artists that signed before digital are victims of labels assuming rights to things that didn’t even exist back then, like the Making Available Right. 

And non featured artists, session musicians. With radio in decline and no equitable remuneration from streaming, you get some of the worst deals of all. I think this analysis hits the nail on the head and sets out the challenge for public policy makers.

  • What framework do we need to ensure your terms and conditions?
  • What rights and protections do you need to make sure work pays? 

That’s what we’ve got to focus on. And I promise you, I will.

Music is such a big part of my agenda as Shadow Culture Secretary, and of our vision as the Labour Party. That vision involves everyone, from any background, having the opportunity to enjoy music from an early age.

I want our country’s music industry to reflect the whole country, to look and sound like the whole country. Not just a tiny, privileged section of it. Music is - or should be - part of every single child’s cultural inheritance. We need to ensure that every young person gets the chance to listen and perform, whether or not they go on to make a career out of it.

The test for any Culture Secretary should be: When they leave office are more people listening to, playing and recording music than when they entered office. That should be the goal and test for each of us, and I regard it my own as Shadow Culture Secretary. 

Music is profoundly civilising. It broadens our horizons, helps us understand each other and be tolerant of each others’ differences. It surrounds us more than we know or often appreciate

It’s great that the union is going to be running a campaign highlighting the economic and cultural value of orchestras and those who play in them. Those that play in orchestras can find themselves at rehearsals in the morning, a hospital ward or sheltered housing in the afternoon and performing in the evening.

Horace was telling me of the work of the members of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra who reached into the minds of dementia patients to such an extent that their prescribed medicines were reduced. That’s the power of music and the people that make it. The work of musicians in orchestras should be a source of national celebration but also a recognized tool of social policy.

They’re not some of the loudest voices in the music industry but orchestras are the soundtrack to our daily lives…in films, in adverts, in video games. It’s great the union will be championing them. 

Something else that needs a champion at the moment … small music venues. 

Last week I was at the launch of UK’s Music’s “Wish You Were Here” report. It was full of good news. Fans spending 4 billion at festivals. Over 12 and half million music tourists, packing out our concerts and festivals.

But that report contained a warning too. It showed that our smaller music venues are struggling, with a drop in spending and a drop in overseas visitors. I’m sure everyone in this room knows the challenges they face, from rising business rates to new developments. It really worries me.

I was recently back at Hull’s New Adelphi. If you don’t know it, it’s a fantastic little music venue. I actually used to live next door to it – I could hear the soundcheck from my flat. If I liked what I heard, I used to go to the gig.

This time, we saw a brilliant set by a young singer-songwriter called Katie Spencer. It would break my heart to see venues like the Adelphi shut down – and it would set back the careers of the up-and-coming musicians like Katie, who need places like that to perform in - to hone their craft, to learn their trade, to build an audience.

Central government and local government have a vital role to play in protecting these venues. They should be seen as cultural venues rather than places of commerce. Labour’s manifesto included a commitment to put the “agent of change” principle into planning policy, so that new developments near existing music venues are responsible for ensuring that adequate sound-proofing is in place. 

The MU have been brilliant in promoting the principle, and I know my Labour colleagues Kevin Brennan and Jo Stevens worked with you on the - the Save Womanby Street Campaign - in Cardiff which helped persuade the Welsh Labour Government to commit to bring in Agent of Change in Wales. I’ll keep backing the campaign to enshrine it in law – even thought I think we can all agree - it needs a new name. 

I briefly want to mention the election.We did better than expected, than almost anyone expected. That was because of the campaign Jeremy led, and it was because of our policies. They addressed the concerns of ordinary people.

And a lot of those policies came from listening to people like you – to organisations like the MU. Take shared parental leave and shared parental pay. A commitment to extending the right to both was in the Labour Party manifesto. It’s the right thing to do because self-employed parents should have the same entitlements as everyone else.

And it’s sensible because it gives those parents the flexibility they need to keep up their music – which is their business after all – and so their contribution to our economy. That commitment was in the manifesto because Olga Fitzroy – who is a recording and mix engineer, as well as a campaigner for pay equality - told us how much of a problem it was for self-employed people in the music industry.

I’ve said I want to work with you on the issues the industry faces. I mean it. If there’s something you think I should know about – I want to hear from you.

Our music industry leads the world – but it won’t continue to do so if we don’t act, together. If we don’t look to bridge the value gap. If we don’t stem the numbers of music teachers leaving the profession. If we don’t stop the live music venues closing. If we don’t work out a way to reward artists fairly. And if we don’t ensure musicians’ rights and their ability to tour are protected after we leave the EU.

Musicians are the way this country speaks to the world, despite all language and cultural barriers. You are invaluable and you’re irreplaceable. I am here today to assure you The Labour party will keep pushing to protect and promote you.

I’m really looking forward to working with you on how best to do that. 

Thank you