Music News

UK Music CEO talks AI, Brexit, political turmoil and why we ‘may have lost next Ed Sheeran’

UK Music CEO Jamie Njoku-Goodwin speaks to Headliner about the biggest challenges facing the music industry, from the impact of AI and Brexit to the difficulties facing the grassroots music sector, Eurovision, and why we ‘may have lost the next Ed Sheeran’.

Days after giving evidence to MPs on the impact of AI on the music industry, Headliner sat down with Njoku-Goodwin for an in-depth chat on the most disruptive technological breakthrough since the dawn of the internet. The conversation around the implications of generative AI on the music industry has been building for years, but in recent months has become its biggest talking point. Questions over how such technology can fall in line with existing copyright and IP framework are among the most pressing for the industry at present, with creators deeply concerned about the huge risks facing their livelihood should AI be able to create ‘new’ works in the style of an artist without having to pay them.

Njoku-Goodwin also opens up on the continued challenges posed by Brexit. Seven years since the referendum result, the implications of the UK’s departure from the EU are still being acutely felt, in some cases forcing artists to leave the music industry altogether.

Elsewhere, he details UK Music’s role in helping the grassroots venues sector survive what is predicted to be its most challenging year to date, the devastating effects of small venue closures on the next generation of new talent, and how the political upheaval of the past two years has impacted the music industry…

Last week you were giving evidence to MPs on the implications of AI on the music industry. What were the key messages you wanted to get across?

It was really important that we were there to give evidence. Lots of the stuff that’s been happening with AI in recent weeks and months is half exciting and half terrifying. There are huge opportunities but also huge risks and challenges, and this applies across society, from health care to transport and public data, across society. So, it was fantastic to be able to have this conversation with MPs, give evidence, and put a case across about why we should seize the opportunities of AI and make the most of this technology, but in a way that protects the music industry. There are all sorts of growth and job opportunities and a lot of the proposals we’ve seen from government in recent weeks and months would be catastrophic for the industry, so it was good to put our case forward on how the AI and music and creative industries can grow in tandem, supporting one another.

What are the most concerning aspects of AI for the music industry?

Fundamentally it’s about how AI interacts with the current copyright and IP framework we have. So, one of the biggest causes for concern we’ve had in recent months was around copyright exemption, which means that copyright and IP laws wouldn’t apply for the training of AI. We dubbed that music laundering at the time as it would have meant a situation where you would have been able to take works from a songwriter, feed them into an AI, have an AI generate ‘brand new’ version of the songs and essentially not have to pay or respect any copyright or royalty for the original composer. Now that would be awful not just for those composers but also for the industry as a whole. The copyright and IP framework we have in this country has been one of the reasons for this industry’s success, so if those rules and regulations were watered down it would have been catastrophic for the industry. So, trying to ensure there will be no copyright exceptions is one of the key things we want to see.

And there are a number of broader questions. Around the world we are seeing countries working out how they regulate AI; how they make sure you can have ethical, responsible AI, and we are wanting to do the same. So, questions like, how do you know what an AI has been trained on? If you have an AI generated piece of music how do you know whether or now it has infringed copyright? How do you know whether or not it has taken someone else’s work? One of the things you’d need on that is a database or record of what an AI has been trained on. That’s what other countries have been looking at and that’s what the UK should be doing too. And even more fundamental than that, not just what an AI generated piece of music has been trained on, but what actually is an AI generated piece of work? It’s totally conceivable that there are AI generated piece of music out there and no one knows that they are AI generated.

More broadly, we need to figure out what the licensing framework looks like. We are having lots of conversations in the music industry about what we need to be doing to support the AI sector, making sure that this technology can grow responsibly, so we need a proper licensing framework where if an AI company wants to use the work of a songwriter to train AI there is a way for them to do so if the songwriter gives them permission.

But this isn’t a final established technology. People like to act as thought where we are at with AI is where we are going to be, but it’s a nascent technology. It’s developing incredibly quickly, so as an industry we need to be keeping up with those developments and making sure we can be utilising this technology. There is lots to be excited about but it’s vital we get the regulatory frameworks right.

Is AI an even bigger disruptor for the music industry than the internet?

Yes. Without a doubt. The capacity for disruption comes at scale. The internet holds a lot of lessons for us. Right now, policy makers are legislating on online safety, they spend a whole lot of time and resource trying to make sure they legislate correctly on how people can use the internet safely. You could argue that that’s being done now because policy makers didn’t get it right decades ago, so there is a real argument that policy makers should be thinking not about the frameworks for years and decades to come.

There are also questions for us as an industry. It wasn’t just policy makers that should have been doing more with the advent of the internet, you could argue the industry should have been as well. And the industry has learned from this. They are not seeing AI as this thing that is completely awful and needs to be stopped in its tracks, they are recognising that it’s going to be massively transformational. It’s going to transform how we create and how we consume, so the point is not to bury your head in the sand and say I don’t want this to happen, you have to mitigate the risks and take advantage of the opportunity

For all we know, the next Ed Sheeran has left the industry and we'll never know about it. Jamie Njoku-Goodwin-Goodwin, CEO, UK Music

What does hosting Eurovision mean for the city of Liverpool and the wider UK music industry?

The most important thing to say on this, and everyone in Liverpool has been saying the same, is that it wasn’t just hosted by Liverpool for the UK, it was hosted by Liverpool and the UK on behalf of Ukraine. That’s been incredibly important this year, and I pay tribute to how Liverpool and the whole organising team has embraced that. You can see that not just on the branding but the whole ethos, and I think Liverpool did the UK proud and Ukraine proud.

At UK Music we talk a lot about the power of music to unite and bring people together, and there is no greater example of that than what we’ve seen with Eurovision over the last couple of weeks and months. We’ve had people of different parties, different generations coming together to celebrate Eurovision. And it puts a global spotlight on the UK and our values and it’s great to show how we can bring people together with music and the potential of music to bring disparate people from across the globe together.

The past couple of years have seen major upheaval within government, from Prime Minister changes to cabinet reshuffles. How disruptive is that upheaval for UK Music in its effort to engage with government and ensure that it is fully engaged with the needs of the music industry?

It’s hugely disruptive. Political turmoil consumes governments, and the people you want to be engaging with are focusing on internals rather than externals, so the past nine months have been a real challenge. During Covid we were really battling for survival so we were looking very short term. As we came out of that we’ve had a couple of Prime Ministers and new teams and advisors coming and going. And it’s really critical for us to be able to make clear to policy makers what the needs of our industry are, how the industry works, our concerns… and having to have those conversations two, three, four times in a matter of weeks at times is obviously difficult. We’ve all had enough of political turmoil, so we need to look ahead at how we can move forward and how we can be thriving in five to 10 years’ time.

We need a long-term strategic view to the challenges we face. Issues like AI are going to be here for the long term, so we need to have a real plan for what we are going to do there. We need to make sure it’s as easy as possible for UK artists to tour internationally. We’ve just done a big piece of work on the costs associated with US Visas. So hopefully with a bit more political stability we will really be able to make our case to government and move the dial politically.

Brexit is still causing significant problems for artists looking to tour in the EU. Are we any nearer to finding solutions on the restrictions artists face?

It’s always really important to hail the good work that has been done, and there is good work that has been done. When the Trade & Cooperation Agreement came through there were a good couple of dozen countries requiring work permits and there has been a real process of working and engaging bilaterally with countries to argue with them why this is not in their interests. I think the best example of that is Spain where as a result of a huge programme of sustained work with promoters engaging with other promoters we saw Spain and some other countries change their rules. But this isn’t a solution to all of the problems we face – in a field of 40 obstacles we’ve removed five of them!

There is still a whole load of challenges with things like carnets, Visas, and work permits. There’s also the 90 days in 180 situation, which is great if you’re only going to Europe for 90 days as it means you can be Visa free, but lots of musicians and crew are spending a lot more time than that there. They are on the road, it’s where their livelihood is, and they need to be there for a lot longer. And it’s adding costs and complexity, and for many it’s making it impossible to tour. I’m regularly hearing stories about artists and crew who are not just choosing not to tour but deciding that this just isn’t a viable industry for them. It’s a critical priority for us and we are continuing to do as much as we can.

I think lots of the rhetoric between the EU and the UK has not necessarily been amenable to constructive work over the past couple of years, but I think that’s definitely changed with the Windsor framework agreement. It was a great example of the EU and the UK coming together and sensible heads prevailing. Hopefully that’s a real example of how when there is a shared political will for something you can get it over the line.

How crucial a year is 2023 for the grassroots sector? Despite venues having been fully open for some time now, many from the sector believe this could be its most challenging year yet.

I’d agree. It’s an incredibly challenging time for the sector. If you take a step back, there was the culture recovery fund during the pandemic and there were a number of venues that benefitted from that, so the government deserves credit for that. However, off the back of that, what’s the point of spending billions of pounds supporting sectors during the pandemic only to see them fail and close after the pandemic? It shouldn’t just be a case of saving something during the pandemic – when these venues are gone they are gone, so they need to be able to thrive. They need to be supported while we still have them.

What is your role in preserving and nurturing that sector?

As we saw during the pandemic, we are a heavily interconnected ecosystem, and that’s never been truer than during those couple of years, when you had people on the recorded music side really worried about what was happening on the live side, and across the industry we can see how connected everything is. We will lobby the government intensely to support the sector more, and we also have an eye on the next election, where regardless of who’s in power we are pushing an agenda that will be as supportive of the sector as possible. We are engaging with all the political parties and putting to them our manifesto and outlining what we need.

Are we at risk of losing the next generation of British music stars, given the challenges posed by Brexit and the plight of grassroots venues?

Yes. We are. Just taking Brexit as an example, we know people are leaving the industry because of Brexit. People in their 20s who in a parallel universe would typically be touring Europe and building a fanbase and topping the charts in five years’ time are leaving the industry. For all we know the next Ed Sheeran has left the industry and we’ll never know about it. That’s happening now. But there is still huge potential in the industry. As a country we have such a proud record of producing world class musical talent and we have to make sure that we make it as easy as possible for the next generation to succeed. But just because we have a great past doesn’t mean we are guaranteed the same in the future.

Where are the biggest opportunities for the industry?

The nature of our job and organisation is to focus on the challenges. But we are a mighty force, we are the second biggest NET exporter of music on the planet. People are demanding more and more music, so we have to look at how we capitalise on that as an industry. There are huge challenges but there are lots of reasons to be hopeful and we need to maximise the industry’s opportunities as much as possible.