‘Do we want music to be a pursuit only of the wealthy?’

One of the UK’s biggest funders of new and emerging music, responsible for fostering the careers of artists including Sam Fender, Little Simz and 2021 Mercury prize winner Arlo Parks, has this week seen its budget slashed by 60%.

The PRS Foundation, which funds hundreds of aspiring artists and music organisations across the country – including a number of artists from groups underrepresented in the music industry – announced on Wednesday that its income would be cut from £2.75m to £1m from 2024 onwards, citing financial necessity. The decision was taken by its parent company and primary funder PRS for Music, which collects royalties for musicians when their music is streamed or played in public.

Industry professionals and artists greeted the news with dismay, foreseeing potentially disastrous consequences for the British music industry. “We’re hugely disappointed,” says Annabella Coldrick, chief executive of the Music Managers Forum. “Artists have just gone through two years in which they’ve had no live earnings. The cost of touring’s gone up, tickets aren’t selling because of the cost of living crisis. And yet their collecting society, which is sitting on enormous revenues, is slashing their funding.”

“Established artists don’t come from nowhere – often it’s years and years of hard graft for very little money,” says keyboardist Dan Leavers of London jazz trio the Comet Is Coming, who count Shabaka Hutchings as a member and were supported by an early-career PRS Foundation grant. “When we were signed to a smaller independent label, running on a tight budget, PRS accepted our application and saw something in us: that belief spurred us on to make our greatest music.”

Acting on behalf of their 160,000 members, PRS for Music collected more than £650m in 2020 from broadcasters, licensed premises such as pubs and nightclubs, radio stations and streaming platforms, spending £80m on their own administrative and staffing costs and £2.75m on the PRS Foundation.

In a statement, PRS for Music said: “Donations from PRS for Music are generated separately from the royalties paid out to our members. This income has declined significantly over recent years. As such, the difficult decision was made to reduce our donations.”

PRS Foundation chief executive Joe Frankland says the cuts are “disappointing given that PRS’s overall collections are on an upward trajectory, and the Society is on a path to collect £1bn annually”.

Black Country, New Road. Photograph: Holly Whittaker

Eight of the 12 acts nominated for 2021’s Mercury prize received PRS Foundation funding, including lauded indie band Black Country, New Road. “Without PRS Foundation support, it would have been extremely hard to break even playing shows outside the UK,” says guitarist Luke Mark. “This is an even bigger issue for new artists today with the increased costs of EU touring since Brexit. It also validated our expertise as composers and producers. That belief means so much to up-and-coming artists.”

Demand for funding has increasingly outstripped supply, with applications more than doubling since 2014. “Unless we want music to be a pursuit only of the wealthy, funding is essential to ensure a more level playing field,” say the Comet is Coming.

The women and artists of colour who most rely on the PRS Foundation contrast starkly with PRS for Music’s leadership. Across the 25-strong Members Council, which scrutinises the PRS Board’s work, there are eight women and only two people of colour, with the majority of those elected and appointed hailing from major labels, not grassroots music. Unprecedented numbers of Black and minority ethnic candidates, including another Mercury prize nominee in Laura Mvula, stood as Council candidates this week. PRS members rejected all of them, electing seven white men and one white woman.

“It’s so tone deaf,” says an exasperated Coldrick, who attended the AGM at which Board members were elected and the funding cuts announced. “They basically stood up and said: ‘We know we’ve got a problem with diversity on our Board’ and then slashed the fund taking action to build that diversity.”

The return of live music post-Covid saw PRS for Music’s income increase by nearly a quarter to £780m in 2021, and a re-flourishing live scene after pandemic restrictions have been fully lifted will continue to swell its income. But according to music PR Jess Partridge, “the number of people who can afford to make music is going to be dramatically reduced” by PRS for Music’s decision. “Do you just not want to see an industry in which people from different backgrounds are empowered to participate? Because it really feels like that.”