Drummer and music director Peter Luscombe may not be a household name, but his music is familiar to generations of fans.
He’s played on more than 147 albums, is a member of Paul Kelly’s backing band, and has a couple of ARIAs to his name.
In 45 years, he has never received a cheque for the broadcast of music recordings he has been a part of and fears he will need to “work until I drop”.
Session musicians like Luscombe are bringing their long-running campaign for legal recognition of their copyright to the fringes of the Labor conference in Brisbane on Thursday, where they are lobbying for the party to back changes which would help the next generation of musicians make a living wage.
While US actors are picketing Hollywood studios to be properly remunerated by streaming services and for reruns, Luscombe and his colleagues are seeking income from the broadcast of recorded music played in shops, gyms, on radio, television, and nightclubs.
A songwriter is paid every time their music is played on radio and the record label and the featured artist gets paid too, capped at 1 per cent of the commercial radio sector’s revenue.
But session artists – featured or backing musicians and vocalists – are left in the cold by a “broken system” that does not acknowledge their contributions, according to Susan Cotchin, an expert in the complex field of neighbouring rights.
These are the rights that apply to the audible performance on a sound recording, and they ‘neighbour’ the composition copyright of a work. The income from public performance is shared between performers and the label.
The record industry took its case for the removal of a cap on payments to federal parliament last week and a private member’s bill by ACT senator David Pocock has been referred to a Senate committee. But session musicians have long been cut out from such payments.
Dr Rod Davies, a lecturer in popular music and songwriting at Monash University and a session musician, says Australian session musicians have had no economic claim to their recorded performances beyond a basic session fee that, in real terms, has been going backward for decades.
“As a session musician, you bring experience, you bring expertise and creativity, you are bringing someone’s dream to fruition which they may have difficulty articulating,” Luscombe says.
“But it means as a hired musician you are living hand to mouth, and you are relying on being paid for the work you do, and when that’s done, that’s it.”
Paul Davies, campaigns director for the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance, says Australian musicians had been denied rolling payments available to musicians in dozens of countries including in the UK, Europe and many US states.
He is calling for amendments to the antiquated Copyright Act to include recognition and a formula for distribution.
“In Australia, actors get residuals, but musicians get nothing,” he says. “They get none of the income that flows from the records they make when these records are broadcast, unless they happen to be among the very, very few artists signed to record labels.
“To further complicate this issue, Australian performers are blocked from these residuals by many countries, the UK being the most notable, as there is no reciprocal arrangement.
“The rest of the world woke up to this inequity a long time ago and fixed it. Musicians need it to be fixed here.”
Cotchin has acted for the likes of Fatboy Slim, Rihanna, John Farnham and Radiohead as chief executive of Good Neighbour Rights, a company affiliated with the late Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom Group.
She says she knows of instances where non-featured performers or session musicians have earned $300 for playing on records played multiple times a day on radio. The one-off fee was inadequate compensation for their contribution to a creative product and denied them a decent living.
What’s more, all Australian artists – from Tones and I to the Kid Laroi, even AC/DC and INXS – don’t get a cent from the plays of their recorded music in the UK, unless they’ve struck a deal with a major label, Cotchin says. It’s the same situation for Ed Sheeran who doesn’t directly benefit from the plays of his music in Australia.
That issue goes back to the failure of previous federal governments to ratify a provision of a treaty of the World Intellectual Property Organisation which provided “equitable remuneration” to both featured and non-featured performers for the commercial exploitation of their recorded performances, Rod Davies says.
Britain was one of a number of territories that took a stand and decided not to pay Australian artists in protest of Australia’s decision to limit equitable remuneration of overseas performers, he says. Australian artists with international appeal now frequently choose to record outside Australia.
Luscombe says the introduction of copyright payments would amount to “a small amount of money paid by a lot of people that makes a huge difference”.
If not for the support of Paul Kelly, it would have been a lot more difficult to sustain a life within the industry, he says, but the nation should not rely on the goodwill of individual artists to sustain hired musicians through downturns.
The copyright question could be considered as part of the Senate committee’s look at Pocock’s private member’s bill or as part of the remit of the new body, Music Australia.
On the private member’s bill, a spokesperson for the federal Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, said the government would carefully consider the recommendations of the Senate inquiry and would work to “develop an understanding of the likely impacts on regional and remote radio broadcasters and the ABC” before finalising any decision.