Billy Bragg and Dave Rowntree:

The dispute between Google and the PRS highlights exactly why we're launching a campaign to safeguard the rights of musicians

Google's decision unilaterally to remove the music videos from their YouTube network in the UK as a fee-negotiating tactic in a dispute with the Performing Rights Society is a stark illustration of the power-shift that has gone on with the music industry over the past decade. By choosing to take on the PRS, a society that collects royalties for artists rather than record companies, Google is hoping to bring to heel the last remaining outpost of resistance to the idea that music on the internet should be free – the creators of that music, the artists themselves.

Digital technology is the best thing that has happened for performers and songwriters since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and made it possible for us to earn a living from something other than live performance. Recent developments in audio technology have made it possible for anyone with a laptop and a connection not only to make their own music, but also to distribute it around the world.

The potential, particularly for new talent, is incredible.

Unfortunately for us artists, not everyone in the music industry shares this view. The major labels seem to see the internet as a threat, not just in their self-defeating attempts to criminalise our fans for sharing our music with others, but also in their determination to cling to the old way of doing things. Under the old business model, they took the lion's share of the profits for doing the heavy-lifting of physical production and distribution of stock. Shamefully, some labels are still offering deals to new artists based on this notion. We live in a digital age but we're stuck in an analogue music industry.

As long as artists allow the major labels to speak for the industry as a whole, this situation will not change. Later this year, Lord Carter will deliver his report to government (for details of his interim report, see here), setting out the framework for the development of digital technologies in Britain. He has invited interested parties to come and speak to him with their ideas. That is why we have chosen this moment to call on artists to come together to discuss issues, formulate ideas and ultimately speak with one united voice to the music industry, the internet service providers and to government at national and international levels.

We believe that the best way to ensure that we properly benefit from the new technology is for artists to assert their ownership and control of their rights. Only by coming together to speak with a single, powerful voice can we hope to unleash the full artistic potential of the internet, while ensuring that we get fairly paid for the content that we provide. Google's dispute with the PRS makes this debate even more urgent. Their menacing attitude towards paying UK artists for content is a test case that will have ramifications around the world.

The Featured Artists Coalition, which launches in London on Wednesday March 10, is not a "pop stars' union" – we already have the Musicians Union to represent everyone in our trade and we encourage our fellow featured artists to join the MU and uphold its rules. The FAC is a campaigning organisation that seeks to achieve fair remuneration in exchange for widespread access. Our target is not the music fan but the businesses that are making huge profits by exploiting artistic content for which they pay little or nothing at all.

Whether we like it or not, the old business model is broken and the decline in sales in the past few years has not been helped by the determination of the big labels to protect themselves at the expense of both artists and fans. Record shops have disappeared from our high streets and the big labels may go the same way, passing into the hands of asset strippers whose only interest is the bottom line. Yet, there is still clearly an audience out there for good music, and plenty of young musicians hoping to find them.

This is why we need to find our voice now – to ensure that the next generation of artists are able to earn a living in the new digital music industry that is busy being born.

Billy Bragg and Dave Rowntree are directors of the Featured Artists Coalition


Billy Bragg and Dave Rowntree

The GuardianTramp

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