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The BBC’s plan to launch a new digital music discovery service has prompted intense debate. David Balfour wonders, however, if many in the music industry haven’t been a little quick in jumping to conclusions about the BBC’s ‘commercial’ aspiratio

The BBC’s announcement of plans for a new “music discovery service” this week definitely captured the attention of the music industry. 

The plans came to light with the publishing of a wider Charter Review strategy document. As such, this wasn’t a launch announcement for a new streaming service, but there was enough detail within the proposal to reveal that the BBC aims to launch an offering which significantly increases its presence in the audio streaming space.

Rumours have circulated about the BBC’s plans for some time. It’s logical for the Corporation to seek to extend its digital presence in a world where audience behaviour is rapidly shifting and where audience figures for traditional linear broadcasting are increasingly threatened by on-demand services. Recent innovations such as making radio shows available for download via the iPlayer Radio app, and the development of BBC Playlister have generally been warmly received. The Playlister initiative in particular has shown the BBC intelligently interfacing with the on-demand digital space in a way which is beneficial both for its own audience and for the artists which it champions on-air.

The new digital music proposal apparently takes these recent initiatives further. The launch announcement is, however, frustratingly vague. What is clearly proposed is that the service “would make the 50,000 tracks the BBC broadcasts every month available to listen online, for a limited period.” Audiences would be able to access those tracks “via playlists curated by the BBC, and they would be able to build their own playlists based on the music they hear and love on the BBC.” It’s also clear that the catalogue of tracks would include “a set proportion of music from them [labels] which has not previously featured on BBC services.” 

So far, so clear. This new service will make around 50,000 tracks per month available online. It will also include tracks which aren’t necessarily championed or created by the BBC. Many quickly took this to mean that the BBC is planning to launch an on-demand music streaming service, albeit one with a limited catalogue. This led to concerns quickly being voiced that the BBC is planning to compete directly with commercial streaming services. This in turn led to questions about how this new service would be monetised and licensed. These are all quite justified concerns.

We wonder however if many in the music industry haven’t got a little ahead of themselves here? We notice that in the proposal for a new music discovery service, nowhere does it mention that this catalogue of 50,000 tracks will be available for on-demand listening. What is says is that “audiences would be able to access this music via playlists curated by the BBC, and they would be able to build their own playlists based on the music they hear.” “Playlists”, not “on-demand listening”. This is a really important distinction.

We ourselves wondered how the BBC could possibly hope to license an on-demand music service without entering into full negotiations with rightsholders. Whilst the BBC enjoys blanket license agreements with PPL and PRS, these would not be automatically extendable to the on-demand space. Indeed PPL’s license, as we understand it, is clearly not intended or designed for the licensing of on-demand services. Any attempt therefore to license an on-demand service under these agreements without the explicit consent of rightsholders would be a dangerous game for the BBC to try playing. As such, the BPI’s CEO Geoff Taylor fired some warning shots at Wednesday’s BPI AGM noting that the BBC’s proposals – whatever they may be – will need buy-in from the music industry, and they will need to be monetised at an appropriate level which doesn’t give the corporation an inherent advantage over commercial rivals such as Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer et al. 

Some of the tension and concerns generated by the announcement were certainly made worse by the fact that the BBC claimed to have “developed [this] digital music proposal with the music industry”. Cue plenty of people in the music industry thinking ‘how come this is the first time I’ve heard anything about it then?’ There are clearly questions to be asked about how wide and thorough this consultation has been.

For us though, the key point is that the service described, where music can be accessed via playlists, presumably with limited interactivity, is something which could potentially be licensed under blanket agreements. Take the user functionality too far, and specific licenses would be needed. We suspect however, that the BBC is more than aware how burdensome the process of direct licensing can be. Perhaps many have been a little too quick to overestimate its ambition to compete with on-demand streaming services, when in fact it’s merely trying to widen its scope within non-revolutionary boundaries.

There’s quite a lot of speculation on our part here. We were initially preparing to write a piece noting concerns about the BBC barging into commercial territory without engaging in proper consultations or rights negotiations. However, the more we’ve delved into the detail, we can’t help but feel that too many quick conclusions have been drawn in response to the announcement. Let the Corporation be in no doubt however that it doesn’t have special dispensation on rights and licensing, nor can it be allowed to do anything which would undermine the position of commercial rivals. The commercial contribution of those rivals is extremely important to the health of the music industry. The BBC’s audience, cultural clout and globally-respected brand are also vitally important. The only system which makes sense is one where both sides can contribute on a level playing field. 

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