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Expert Interview: Niklas Nienaß - From the theatre to the political stage

Niklas Nienaß has been a member of the European Parliament (EP) for Bündnis 90/Die Grünen since July 2019. As a member of the Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) and founder of the intergroup ‘Cultural Creators Friendship Group’ (CCFG), he has made a name for himself as a supporter of the European cultural and creative sector, with a focus on improving the living and working conditions of cultural workers. In particular, he has recently been working on a report calling for the strengthening of music creators in the music streaming sector.

Published on
June 5, 2024
Author
Michael Schütz
Marketing Lead

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What is your background? How did you get involved in the music industry and what is your concern?

I got into the cultural scene when I started acting in theatre – amateurishly, but with a lot of ambition. In that context, we also produced our own play together and I was active in the choir. I also love going to festivals and concerts, so music plays a big role in my life. I even had my own band for three days, but that's just a side note.

In my professional life, I am concerned that artists can pursue their profession freely and independently, without economic constraints. A good income for creative people is necessary so that we can continue to enjoy art and culture at the other end and so that their fundamental influence on diversity, democracy and critical discourse in our society can be preserved and developed.

How did the topic of music streaming end up on your agenda?

I actually came across the topic of music streaming through a TED Talk by Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA and reports from the scene that I had watched privately. I then found out more and asked artists what their working day looks like and what they earn in concrete terms. I couldn't let go of it, I delved deeper and looked into these questions and possible solutions in detail. Later, especially in discussions with colleagues in politics, I realised that the issue needs much more attention and that we need to take action.

In your opinion, how can better remuneration for artists in the field of music streaming be achieved?

Streaming music is basically a great development because it opens up new opportunities for artists and listeners to create and consume music. However, the distribution of revenue from music streaming has not developed in a fair way, and in my opinion that is essential. Fair distribution means that we look closely at who is listening to which tracks and which artists should be paid accordingly. The money paid for streaming services must, above all, go to those who create the art.

It is only natural that large platforms should earn money as service providers. However, I cannot condone the situation where labels and providers retain the majority of the revenue through unfair conditions and contracts, without offering any added artistic value. It would therefore be important to examine the framework conditions for agreements between the parties involved. Artists are often still paid according to old contract templates for record sales, even though physical records are hardly produced anymore nowadays. We have to adapt these outdated contract structures to ensure that the revenues are distributed fairly.

But that's just one aspect – there are other things to consider to ensure that the money reaches the musicians. A user-oriented payment system on streaming platforms could be fairer here. We also have to ask ourselves why our society is so unwilling to spend money on music as a cultural asset. For a long time, we have been spoiled by having millions of songs available for just under ten euros a month. That's very little money for an enormous amount of bundled artistic performance. So here we should examine how much the costs can be raised to better reward the creative process. Solidarity-based cost scales would also be conceivable, for example. In any case, however, we all have to rethink and be willing to spend money on culture that is really worth it.

What other ways do you see of improving the living and working conditions of musicians?

In the parliamentary report on the ‘Status of the Artists’ (on better working conditions for artists and cultural workers), which we drafted in the Culture Committee, we looked particularly closely at social security. In Germany, we have the Künstlersozialkasse (KSK), but there is no equivalent at the European level. Whether people can live from their work and are protected for the future or in the event of unforeseen circumstances plays a huge role in their professional stability and, subsequently, in our cultural landscape. We need to examine the framework conditions in which this work takes place more closely to ensure that basic rules prevail, support is available and no gag contracts are created. Especially at the beginning of their careers, artists are often happy to receive a contract offer at all and therefore quickly sign conditions that are not in their interest.

In addition, we need to ensure that cross-border cultural activities in Europe are better supported. A concrete example is the raising of the 250-euro limit for non-taxable fees, which has remained unchanged for years and is no longer appropriate. This limit must be increased to reflect current economic conditions. This will make it easier for artists to work across borders without being burdened by additional tax revenue.

What trends do you see in the music industry that could become a big or important thing?

The big issue that is constantly on the agenda is digitisation. Music streaming is a product of digitisation, and we are working to ensure that this change is sustainable and positive for the entire sector. The next big innovation in the same context is already in full swing, and that is of course artificial intelligence (AI). We should actually be proactive here, creating rules and clear structures before we get into problems with implementation without a plan and unprepared. Unfortunately, however, we have to be honest and say that we are already late: there are already serious problems due to unregulated AI use. Many AI systems do not mention or reward artists, even though they use their texts, music and creations, and there are currently no easy ways to appeal against this. In my opinion, this is outrageous and dangerous.

Copyright law allows the use of content for research purposes, but the practice goes far beyond that. That is why we urgently need to create guidelines and regulations. Of course, this must also include the question of how to deal with artistic works that have been produced by a human but with the help of AI. The creative process should definitely be allowed to be assisted and enriched by algorithms – but under certain circumstances, this must then be labelled accordingly. We need to address these fundamental questions as soon as possible so that we don't realise in a few years' time that we have missed the opportunity and that the situation has developed to the detriment of those working in the cultural sector.

What advice would you give to musicians?

The European elections are coming up very soon, and the issue of music streaming in particular can and must be regulated at the European level – which is why it is an important topic for the election. Many people in the music industry are aware of the existing problems because they are directly affected. However, outside the scene, little is known about the situation regarding fair remuneration for artists in streaming. In recent years, we have taken the first steps in the right direction in parliament, but unfortunately there are not too many people in EU politics who are dealing with the issue in detail and campaigning for it.

That's why I would like to urge you to use your reach as musicians to make your voice heard. Fans who listen to and love music want to support the people behind it; they want them to be able to make a decent living from their art. Use the European elections as an opportunity to point out that music streaming must be regulated fairly and that creative people must also be fairly rewarded for their work.

If we all raise our voices, we can attract attention that can be transformed into political momentum. Make your situation a campaign issue and show that this is a matter close to your heart. In this way, we can work together to ensure that politicians act and that positive changes for the cultural and music scene in Europe are finally implemented in practice.

Thanks for the interview, Niklas :)

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