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‘Make sure you’re getting paid something’: MPG executive director Olga Fitzroy talks tackling current issues in the audio industry

PSNEurope catches up with MPG executive director Olga Fitzroy about the extensive work she's been doing to support and increase the rights of producers and engineers in the UK audio industry

Olga Fitzroy. Photo by Blake Ezra.

When PSNEurope last caught up with Olga Fitzroy, she had just been appointed executive director of the Music Producers Guild (MPG). As was to be expected, she confirms there has been a lot of work on her plate since. Her main focus has been “looking after [their] members”, hence the decision to hone in on the issue of unpaid work in the industry, including conducting extensive research into the problem; the results of which are astonishing. Amongst many, the most shocking figures were that 88 per cent of producers and sound engineers reported that they’ve been asked to work for free, while 71 per cent agreed to work for free in the past three years. She explains: “We’ve had a lot of members and non- members writing to us, reaching out about their experiences, because our stats show it’s just endemic in the music industry. A lot of people want to work in this industry, and then that implies that people can take the piss.”

Fitzroy continues, explaining the impetus behind conducting research on unpaid work – which had never been done before – and what the next steps are now that the results are in. “It’s a thing you hear about now and then,” she says, “but it didn’t seem like anybody had measured it, how bad it was, who was doing it, how many people it affects, and how much money people are losing. We tried to find out more information to give us the tools to be able to hopefully tackle it.“

As for the plan going ahead, she asserts: “We’d like to issue a bunch of guidelines about how to ask for money, some really basic things. I think part of it is producers and engineers don’t want to rock the boat, and in general people in the UK are quite awkward when it comes to talking about money. The other issue is that some people do a job thinking they are going to get paid and then don’t. Whether it’s because they are late payers and they haven’t got the resources to chase it, or if it’s an individual artist that’s self-funding and they run out of money. We’ll be giving our members some guidance, saying you should actually be asking for 50 per cent upfront. Also, we want to hold some workshops to help people negotiate what they are entitled to. There are other forms of payment that not everyone knows about: people might be contributing to the writing so they could get some publishing, they might be entitled to some mechanical royalties.”

Not only are established engineers not being paid for their professional work but at the entry-level, unpaid internships are still an ongoing issue. Fitzroy’s approach to this is “to start talking to studios and find out which of them are doing it and why, and educating them on why it’s bad. I don’t think anyone wins if only rich kids can get a foot in the door in the music industry. They’re reducing their pool of talent.

“Another thing that could be done is going into universities and educating the graduates that it’s not actually acceptable to work for free. I think shadowing someone for a few days has its place, if you’ve got a relationship with an individual, that’s great. But actually doing what somebody else is being paid for free and for long periods of time is not acceptable and they are devaluing themselves. You don’t get hotel receptionists sitting there working for free because it’s really cool to work in a hotel.”

In that case, what would her advice be to budding audio professionals just starting out? “I think it is all about personal relationships,” she states. “Don’t work for free, but absolutely have coffee with potential clients, go to gigs, build those personal relationships. When you’ve done a project, keep in touch with those people. If you’re starting out, you might do a deal for a label or band, but make sure that doesn’t become your actual price.

“Often people might ask for work on spec, when they get someone to mix something and they only pay them if they use that mix. Even if you’re doing that type of work, you need to be covering your costs or charging them a demo fee. Even if the agreement is that you get paid more if it’s used, you need to make sure you’re getting paid something. Whether it’s a small record label or artist or not, this isn’t a charity. And it’s not your responsibility to subsidise that.”

Unfortunately, the plight for freelance audio professionals is far and wide, and lack of payment is not the only problem. Another significant campaign Fitzroy and the MPG have been working on is the Credit Where Credit’s Due campaign, which works to get streaming platforms to properly credit engineers, producers and musicians. “Some of them do credits or partial credits,” Fitzroy details. “Tidal is better than most, and Spotify does have a credits tab now, but there aren’t engineer credits, which there used to be on records. So we’re talking to streaming companies and other tech companies that deal with all that metadata and we’re really pushing to see if we can make it happen.” To highlight the point, Fitzroy opens her Spotify and searches for Adele, looking at the credits tab for one of her albums. She finds out: “It’s got a ‘produced by’ tab but it’s not been filled in. The information is incomplete, and there’s only a ‘written by’ and ‘produced by’ tab, not engineers. And no sessions musicians or anyone else Clearly, there’s still work to be done. “We’re still working to get complete and accurate credits on streaming platforms,” she explains. “They are not saying ‘no we can never do this’, but it’s a really slow process to get people to have accurate data. Apparently it’s all in different formats, I’m not quite sure what the problems are.”

As a self-employed audio professional herself, Fitzroy has done extensive work securing shared parental leave for freelance workers having a child, aptly dubbed the SelfieLeave campaign. She talks us through its progress in Parliament: “We’ve had loads of support. We’ve had two private members bills in this session of Parliament – the SelfieLeave bill with Tracy Braven, and then Jo Swinson did a private members bill on parental leave. Now, because those were private members bills and they didn’t have government support, they didn’t actually become law. But it has really raised a lot of awareness.

“We’ve also been holding fringe events with politicians and other people from the business community. We had two Labour MPs on our panel, and of the Lib Dems, we had Lucy Annaburger and Lord Clement Jones. At the Conservative conference, we had Lady Neville-Ross. The Conservatives haven’t committed to it, but we’ve had some really positive meetings with ministers who think it is the sort of thing they would do. It doesn’t cost them any extra money, and saying that men and women can share the leave rather than specifying it has to be the mother is less state involvement, so it’s not against their core values. It’s also pro small business, so I think once all the Brexit stuff dies down, I’m quite hopeful in getting it through in the next year or so.”

As the executive director, much of Fitzroy’s responsibility now also rests on increasing membership to the MPG, and diversity within it. How has she gone about achieving this? “It’s about being visible and showing the work we’re doing. With this unpaid leave research, even though it’s early days, it’s something that is directly looking after engineers and producers’ interests.”

“In terms of diversity,” she says, “it’s not going to happen overnight. Again, pushing commercial studios and producers not to employ people for free means that you get people from a much more diverse range of backgrounds actually being able to enter the industry.

“When we put on panel events, we always make sure we have a diverse range of speakers, so we don’t have any ‘manels’ and we try and have BAME people on all our panels and events. I think there are loads of BAME producers and engineers working, but they’re not working in the traditional, commercial rock & roll studios as much. The big studios are definitely white, male and middle class in terms of engineers and people working there, but there’s definitely loads of producers from all sorts of backgrounds working and making amazing records.”

Although the progress is slow and the shift small, Fitzroy claims she’s noticed an increase in women in the audio industry, and the stats confirm this. Five years ago, the stats for female membership of the MPG was five per cent, and the most recent results in 2018 showed 14 per cent.

With the MPG awards coming up in the new year, which Fitzroy duly notes “members can vote for”, and a seemingly unending pile of important work to be done, we let her return to the task of making the biz a better place.