debbie harry wants youtube to start fairly compensating musicians

'Artists are being exploited to make a very small percentage of people extremely rich,' the iconic Blondie singer argues in a new column.

by Emily Manning
27 April 2016, 7:22pm

While much of the music industry debates the merits of streaming subscription services — from Taylor Swift calling out Apple Music's unpaid trial period to the great TIDAL experiment — one of its most iconic artists has now spoken up about one of the biggest of them all. Debbie Harry has had it with YouTube.

In a Guardian guest column, the Blondie frontwoman explores the seismic shifts in music industry economics that have occured over her 40-year career, the most monumental of them due to the advent of digital streaming.

"The official video for Blondie's 'Heart of Glass' on YouTube has been viewed 49m times. There are over a million other Blondie videos on YouTube, most of them from unofficial accounts, garnering a combined hundreds of millions of views," Harry writes. "Yet none of us in Blondie will receive a fair amount of royalties from these millions of plays. In fact, it is estimated by the American Association of Independent Music that YouTube pays only a sixth of what Apple and Spotify pay artists."

Harry notes that while she was fortunate enough to make a good living performing, she was also fortunate enough to live in an era in which people actually bought physical albums. In the digital world, however, "the up-and-coming artists of today are being denied the chance to earn a living," while the streaming giants themselves benefit immensely from their art.

She outlines the logic through which global digital platforms bank on music to fuel their overall growth. Arguing that the most searched item on YouTube is music — to the point where the site has become the top destination for music online — Harry explains that, "music has also helped make YouTube's parent company, Google, which bought it in 2006, become the world's second largest corporation." Despite its reliance on music, Google's profits ($75 billion in 2015) far eclipse the entire music industry's revenue, less than $15 billion in the same year. "Despite music driving so much traffic to the YouTube platform, they do not pay artists fairly. YouTube has enabled a flood of unlicensed content into the marketplace, driving the market price down and using their monopoly-power to pay next to nothing," Harry explains. "Our large community of hardworking artists is being exploited to make a very small percentage of people extremely rich."

So what does she want us to do about it?

Harry insists we begin pressuring US politicians — chiefly current presidential candidates including Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — to lobby to reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Congressional legislation designed to protect artists from monetized pirated copies. However, Harry argues, the bill is seriously outdated (it was passed in 1998) and contains a crazy loophole: if an artist discovers their work uploaded to a platform protected by the bill's safe harbor clause, that artist has to issue a takedown notice for every individual instance in which the work was uploaded — an effectively impossible task.

"Art and music have helped change and sculpt our culture. As someone who performed at seminal clubs like CBGB, and had a part in shaping the punk music scene, I know first-hand how we can influence the world," Harry concludes. "We only ask that we be compensated fairly."


Text Emily Manning
Photography Getty Images / Michael Ochs

Debbie Harry