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PRS chief defends appointment of Tom Watson at UK Music

By | Published on Monday 18 May 2020

Tom Watson

The boss of UK song rights collecting society PRS has defended the decision to appoint former Labour MP Tom Watson as Chair of music industry lobbying group UK Music. Andrea Martin has made that defence in a letter to the PRS membership. Said letter follows a discussion about the hiring of Watson within the PRS board, which in turn followed opposition to the appointment from some of the society’s members.

Watson, also a former shadow culture secretary and Labour Deputy Leader, was announced as the new Chair of UK Music in March. He took over from Beggars Group exec Andy Heath who had chaired the UK Music board since the organisation was set up in 2008.

UK Music seeks to bring together all the different strands of the music industry so that – wherever possible – it can present a united front to the political community.

It is, in essence, a trade body of trade bodies – so its members are other trade organisations like AIM, BPI, FAC, Ivors Academy, MMF, MPA MPG and MU, as well as collecting societies PRS and PPL. The live sector is represented by a sub-committee made up of the various live industry trade organisations.

Watson’s appointment was very popular indeed in some quarters of the music community, but there have been some very vocal critics of the decision too. It’s known that record industry trade group BPI was opposed to the appointment, and a number of – generally older – artists, songwriters, managers and other industry executives have spoken out against the decision.

Those critics insist that their opposition to Watson’s recruitment is entirely based on their belief he isn’t qualified to do the job. Given that he has no direct music industry experience he has clearly been hired for his position and contacts within the political community, they argue, but events in his Parliamentary career mean he is a divisive figure in Westminster and Whitehall.

His campaigning around the 2011 phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper business means he has many enemies within the political press.

However, it was his role in instigating a major police investigation into allegations of sexual abuse made against various former British politicians that was most controversial. Because that police investigation centred on what were later proven to be the false claims of a man called Carl Beech, who was last year found guilty of perverting the course of justice, fraud and child sex offences.

It was mainly politicians from the Conservative Party who were caught up in that police investigation, meaning Watson has plenty of enemies within the party currently in government. Meanwhile, even within Watson’s own party, because he was Deputy Leader during a time of inner turmoil within the Labour movement, he has enemies there too.

All of which, those critics say, mean he won’t be an effective campaigner for the music community within political circles.

However, Watson’s supporters within the music industry disagree, reckoning that – while the outcome of the Carl Beech investigation was unfortunate – he was nevertheless right to put the spotlight on allegations of abuse made against those in positions of power. Meanwhile, on phone hacking, he was in the right, and elsewhere he used his political career to champion the music industry’s agenda.

Plus, despite the controversies, supporters are adamant he is more than capable of helping the music community to navigate the ever-evolving political world, opening doors to key decision makers along the way.

And, without going into any of the past controversies, that latter point is basically what Martin said in her letter to concerned PRS members. Watson, she said, is “well connected” and enjoys “cross bench support” in Westminster. Plus he “has been a strong advocate for the rights that support our business, our diversity, the live sector and venues, as well as being a champion for the talent pipeline and music education that will help ensure our future”.

Elsewhere in her letter Martin wrote how Watson “was an MP for nearly 20 years, Deputy Leader of his party, a founder member of the All Party Parliamentary Group For Music and Shadow Minister for Culture, Media And Sport from 2016 until standing down as an MP last year. He played an invaluable role in supporting the wider UK music industry and went to Brussels to fight our cause for what became article seventeen of the EU Copyright Directive”.

She then cited a recent interview Watson gave to Music Week in which, she says, the new Chair “set out his vision for UK Music and addressed the questions raised about his appointment. He also reinforced his desire to meet with music professionals and their representatives, whatever their views, to personally listen to their issues and answer their questions”.

Seeking to placate those PRS members who reckon that the society – as a board member and funder of UK Music – should not have endorsed Watson’s appointment, Martin went on: “I too will be looking at how we can better engage you, our members, through our regular events and Creator Voice programme to support and inform the lobbying activities of PRS For Music and UK Music in the critical months ahead”.

Ever since Watson was announced as its new Chair, UK Music itself has stressed that the hire was endorsed by its board and has been widely welcomed across the music community.

In recent weeks, various articles quoting critics of the appointment have appeared in the tabloids and Murdoch-owned press which, it has to be said, have a phone-hacking-linked axe to grind in relation to Watson.

You sense UK Music hopes that, eventually, even the Times, Sun and Mail will get bored of running those stories and ultimately it can weather this storm.

And if Watson and the UK Music team do a good job in getting the music industry the kind of government support it needs to successfully come out of the COVID-19 shutdown, maybe some of those critics will ultimately be placated. We will see.

Given the musicians and songwriters are now formally going to war with the labels over how streaming money gets shared out (albeit by initially petitioning the government), there’s going to be some tense times ahead whenever the UK Music board meets. So it would be good if any squabbles over who is chairing those meetings can be put aside.