James Blake on TikTok and fairness for artists: “The brainwashing worked and now people think music is free”

Aprilia Rine

James Blake on TikTok and fairness for artists: “The brainwashing worked and now people think music is free”

James Blake has spoken out about the challenges that musicians face in getting paid fairly for their work in the TikTok age. 

The electronic musician posted a string of comments on his X/Twitter account on Sunday morning (March 3), taking the time to express his thoughts on the current financial state of the music industry, and what he perceives as the unreasonable obstacles facing musicians. 

Blake first responded to a post quoting him speaking about not making “a cent” on a recent viral TikTok hit. “It’s worth noting this is just an example I used in a post talking about the wider effect of TikTok on music,” he wrote. “Just seeing this part makes it seem navel gazing but I’m speaking on a thing that’s affecting artists all over the world.” 

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“Something I keep seeing is ‘if you’re lucky enough to go viral, just use the exposure to generate income some other way’,” he continued. “Musicians should be able to generate income via their music. Do you want good music or do you want what you paid for?” 

“If we want quality music somebody is gonna have to pay for it. Streaming services don’t pay properly, labels want a bigger cut than ever and just sit and wait for you to go viral, TikTok doesn’t pay properly, and touring is getting prohibitively expensive for most artists.” 

“The brainwashing worked and now people think music is free.” 

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Blake went on to speculate about the possible coming threat of AI too. “Since it’s cheaper to produce fast, synthetic music to drop on streaming every week to capitalize on the strengths of the model, watch how the model is preparing you for AI generated music that pays musicians nothing at all.” 

“Anyway love you guys for caring about artists and I’ve loved seeing your thoughtful responses.” 

The biting financial reality is affecting countless new musicians and bands, with Another Sky telling NME this week that the changing industry model, paired with factors including the cost of living crisis and Brexit, are making it increasingly hard to get by. 

“Most artists, maybe not the ones you see doing really well, but we rely on cheap ways of living – from small places in London, sub-letting rooms, too many people in a house, those kinds of situations,” said the band’s singer Catrin Vincent. 

“It’s really hard to sustain yourself as an artist. You rely on cheap ways of living because you don’t get paid properly. Streaming doesn’t pay, TikTok has had a major impact on the music industry, there’s too much.” 

Expanding on the effect of TikTok, Vincent added: “It caters to a specific type of artist where if you have the time, a lovely house and the right equipment then you can make these pro videos. It’s hard as a musician to also be a content creator. It’s another massive job that you’re not being paid for. If I work full-time then come home and do TikTok instead of sitting with myself as an artist just feels wrong.” 

NME chaired an artist-led ‘Year in Music’ panel at the Featured Artist Coalition’s (FAC) 2023 End of Year Party, where a number of musicians spoke about these same challenges. Murray Matravers, the frontman of the band formerly known as Easy Life, pointed out that the royalties that artists receive from streaming platforms is also severely hurting musicians’ income. 

Murray Matravers of Easy Life performs on stage at Brudenell Social Club in Leeds (Photo by Andrew Benge/Redferns)

“I assumed as a naive young man that if we got to where we are now then I would be really, really rich,” he said. “That’s just not the case sadly. I just want to see artists getting paid for selling records. Wouldn’t that be good? That would be a good place to start.” 

Many in the industry, including the FAC and the Music Venue Trust, are calling for a levy on tickets for gigs at arena size and above, and for major labels to pay back into the grassroots scene, amid a “disaster” facing live music. 

David Martin, who represents the FAC, a trade union body representing musicians and artists in the UK, recently wrote to NME to outline the issues and to highlight potential improvements to the current system. 

“Artists are the biggest employers in live music, live is at the core of most artist’s businesses,” he wrote. “Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods rest on their shoulders. If artists cannot tour sustainably then our entire sector is placed in jeopardy. 

“For me, there should be a root-and-branch approach to addressing this challenge, and a complete reevaluation of certain industry practices. 

“Most obviously the unjustifiable way in which ‘unallocated’ recorded and songwriting revenues are redistributed – such as the unclaimed pots of money residing in the black boxes of collecting societies, which are eventually divided up according to ‘market share’. 

“The bulk of this revenue, inevitably, goes to the biggest rights holders. But surely a greater sum could be redirected towards the grassroots, to an upcoming generation of talent who are struggling to tour?” 

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