Cinemas might be about to pay a lot more for their music

A seat in a cinema
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From big-screen bops to flutes in the foyer, your local cinema might be about to pay a lot more to play music in its venue. More below:

It’s not really something you think about, music in a cinema. Over the years we’ve all got so used to wandering into a quiet concessions area at 2pm to the gentle lilt of the Star Wars soundtrack playing in the background that it’s hard to imagine the cinematic experience without it. Even once we’re in the screen, audio ambience has become as important as popcorn (or silently glaring at someone wearing a smartwatch) to a trip to the pictures.

But now, following a public consultation on changes to their cinemas tariff, PRS For Music (the company in charge of commercial distribution rights in the UK) your local multiplex might be paying a chunk of change more to keep you tapping your feet to ‘The Entertainer.’

Bectu, the union which represents cinema workers alongside film, TV and live entertainment crews, aren’t particularly happy, and while the PRS website hasn’t provided an update to their proposals since the consultation ended on 20 September, the noises coming from Bectu and the UK Cinema Association imply there haven’t been many changes to the proposed plan.

But just what are these changes? Bear with us, because things are about to get a bit contract-y. There might even be a percentage or three. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Read more: As Hollywood strikes near their conclusion, UK crews are still suffering

First off, it’s worth going through what music cinemas actually have to pay for. As with any company, cinemas have to pay for a music license to play music in public-facing areas (that’s the foyer, auditorium, and even, if you’re somewhere posh, the toilets). What you might not know is that cinemas still have to pay for the music in the films themselves (they could just turn the sound off I suppose, but that sort of thing generally leads to complaints).

None of that’s changed since the last time the tariff was looked at in 2005. Interestingly, though, the films themselves have. The boffins at PRS have watched a whole bunch of stuff and discovered your average film in 2023 features 22 percent more music than the year Sharkboy And Lavagirl came out.

As a result, the base rate cinemas pay to PRS has gone up accordingly, from 7.10p to 8.43p per admission.

But that’s not all! Another big change the cinema industry has introduced since 2005 is the much-maligned booking fee. PRS have decided, not unfairly, that this is just a sneaky way to add an extra quid on the ticket price, so are charging for that too (at a rate of an extra 0.8p). The aim is to have all this stuff equate to (roughly) one percent of the cinema’s box office takings.

BUT THAT’S NOT ALL! This is getting very niche now, but PRS used to give venues a four percent discount for sorting out their paperwork and sending it to them early. That’s going away. Together, all these changes tend to add up…

The end result, as outlined in the proposal, is a music rights fee increase of somewhere between 30 and 82 percent for every cinema in the country, from huge chains to your local independent. In a time when cinemas are still struggling to recover post-pandemic, and with fewer blockbusters on their way in the near future thanks to the summer of strikes in Hollywood, that’s not nothing.

Read more: UK film workers picket Saltburn premiere at BFI London Film Festival

As always, there are two sides to this story. One the one hand musicians, like the rest of the entertainment industry, are hardly renowned for having a load of cash to splash around. With the growth of streaming since 2005, too, most artists are really struggling to get paid meaningful rates for their work.

But at the same time, the sudden increases are really quite substantial, especially if introduced all at once. What’s worse is it seems those hit hardest aren’t the big multiplex chains more able to absorb such a hit, but the one-off independents. According to PRS’ own forecasting, a chain with 11 sites, 1.8 million admissions and a booking fee will see a 42 percent tariff increase, while a single venue with 46,000 admissions will shell out an extra 82 percent. That could come to as much as £1439 per year – potentially devastating for a small business already on the rocks.

There might be no easy answer here – of course, musicians and artists need paying. But the sudden and disproportionately distributed increase might just make the cinema industry’s job harder right when it doesn’t need it.

We’ll have more on this story as and when it develops, but for now, if you run an independent cinema and are worried about these changes, why not get in touch? Drop a comment below, send us an email, or throw a rock with an attached note if you see us in the street. We won’t be cross if it’s for a good cause.

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