Martin Mills' Call to Action: His Billboard MIDEM Speech In Full

This morning (Jan. 27) at MIDEM, Billboard honored Beggars Group founder Martin Mills with its Industry Icon Award for his innumerable contributions to the music business. His fiery speech (in full here) is a call to action for governments and the industry to do more to justly reward and protect artists.


Thank you, Billboard, for this honor.

I was at first embarrassed at being called an icon, and last Saturday I was having dinner at Gwynnet Street in Brooklyn before seeing Palma Violets at Shea Stadium (who reminded me that so much great rock is the moment when the drums come in), and a friend suggested googling the word icon.

That made it much worse.

Definition one is a representation of Christ – or possibly a saint. So not that.

Number two is a sex symbol, or a symbol of latest fashion trends… probably not…

Three is a person regarded as a symbol of a belief, a community or a cultural movement, so I guess that must be me…

Or maybe I’m just something for you to click on.

Some of you know what a reluctant public speaker I am. I think I started getting over that at the A2IM awards last year with the aid of some martinis, but obviously this is breakfast! So forgive me if I stumble – but there are some things I want to say.

Obviously, I never expected to be here. I never started working with music with any idea that Beggars would achieve what it has. I’d have taken any odds against it.

But here we are – and I think our career does provide an illuminating parable for the times. Over more than a third of a century, we’ve quietly grown, putting out music that we love, and increasingly being more and more focused on what we’re good at, and getting better at it. Now I think we know who we are and what we represent – and I think that has been enabled by the technological challenges of the last 15 years.

James Wyllie, our wise counsel for years, once described Beggars as a Madagascar off the continent of Africa that is the music business, part of the same eco-system but with its own micro-climate – I think that’s even truer today, and there are now many more islands around us.

The internet has indeed leveled the playing field for us and for our peers. It has enabled us to compete, as a smaller company, at the highest level, as the success of Adele and others has proved. It has allowed us to develop strengths and attractions that the big companies cannot, to counterbalance what they can do that is hard for us. And that has enabled the kind of artists that we want to work with to come to us in confidence, and know that we can deliver for them at least as much as a bigger company can, for their whole career.

I see us as in many ways a company with very old-fashioned values, succeeding in an intensely competitive modern environment. I see us as a cottage industry, whom the web has allowed to achieve first hand global reach. I actually think the cottage industry model suits many artists much better.

I am not here today to attack the majors, though my views on the perils of consolidation for the market and for the art form we all love remain as strong as ever. And the new Sony Music deal with Pandora illustrates succinctly why we’ve been ringing alarm bells for so long – one company’s scale being leveraged to secure a disproportionately large slice of a relatively fixed size pie, at the likely expense of smaller companies. But I am here today to agree with the majors – in fact, the majors in all the creative arts.

I want to address the lack of support that governments, politicians and bureaucrats worldwide show to the creative industries. Many pay lip service to the value and importance of the creative economy, but most fail to match that with their actions. Creative industries are built upon strong and defendable intellectual property rights, and without that they will inevitably wither and fail. It is impossible to make the investments to produce new creative goods without the security that ownership of them is protected.

Yet governments are seduced daily by elements of the new technology industry into diluting and compromising that security. Often in the name of the importance of those industries to today’s economies, often in the name of open Internet philosophy. But all of these arguments are aimed self-interestedly at compromising the value and the integrity of creative goods. These creative works are a priceless national cultural and economic asset, which should be treasured, not dumped.

Rights owners, especially the biggest ones, have certainly made mistakes in their licensing practices. They still do. And I do believe that Universal’s EMI acquisition is designed primarily to give them an unhealthy degree of dominance in such areas vis-a-vis their competitors. I believe their predatory behavior is ill-befitting a market leader. But I don’t believe that the present day music industry is a reluctant licensor.

It does need help. Cross border licensing is clearly a problem, and the territorial structures that continue to dominate a global licensing marketplace are clearly an anachronism. We need help in moving beyond that. But we do not need to have control of our rights taken away from us, to be forced to licence that in which we have invested at uneconomic prices, to simply allow huge tech firms to make even huger profits. We do not need illegal services to be made more visible than legal ones. Tech companies should be the partners of rights companies, not their masters. And we value them enormously as such, our partnerships with them are fundamental to our business now – as is our content to theirs.

As someone who invests in music – and when I looked at the numbers a few years ago we had written off £25m in unrecouped advances to artists over the years – it makes me fume when politicians cosy up to the big techs at our cost and spout philosophically about the needs of the modern world, about us being dinosaurs, and about music’s irresistible urge to be liberated and free. All in life needs balance and vision, and the likes of Neelie Kroos miss that point. When businesses make money out of music, music rights owners must have the right to a fair share of that income.

And to what economic end for society are such tech companies favored? My small company, admittedly a very successful one last year, apparently paid more tax – at the proper rate – in the UK last year than Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon put together. How can politicians discriminate in favor of companies who most citizens would perceive as cheating the taxman? In what way does that make any sense at all for society?

There are certainly industries which developing technology has turned into dinosaurs – coal mining, horse drawn carriages, for example. But the demand for the power that coal generated is higher than ever, the demand for transport is higher than ever. All that has changed is the way of delivering it.

As with music – we are not wedded to any single carrier, and over the last century have had many – from 1888, when Emile Berliner first created mass audio duplication, and first used the His Master’s Voice Nipper logo, till now. But the demand for recorded music is greater than ever, and I know of no way that the investment of time and money that is needed for new music to be made can happen, other than in the monetization of how people listen to recorded music. So if government erodes or removes our ability to do that, it will ultimately rob listeners of their new music.

So that’s why I decided to accept this honor and screw my nerves up to speak today. Because I’m incensed about the discrimination and the lack of understanding with which those like us who spend their lives creating art that brings people joy, can get treated by those in power. I very much hope that we can all be a part of changing that, because unless we do, the ladder we climbed will not be there for those who follow us.

Thank you.