Mark, My Words: from music to healthcare, the public is being asked to plug broken systems

Spotify has introduced tip jars and Captain Tom Moore – a national hero – has raised millions for the NHS. But we shouldn't have to help out in this way

In a thousand years, lung-augmented schoolchildren will skip in circles chanting a song whose origins have been lost down the centuries. “Round and round the garden, a soldier gathering wealth / One-step, two-step, crippling private health!”

Let’s be clear. Captain Tom Moore is a national hero who thoroughly deserves not just a Number One single but a fourth plinth statue and all the lockdown nudes he could dream of for raising almost £30 million for the NHS (at time of writing) by walking round his garden, like a cross between Jeff Bezos and Alan Titchmarsh. But it’s difficult not to feel his every frame-shuffle as another step towards disaster, a betrayal of the very cause he’s tottering along for.

He has, you see, become the poster-grandad for the idea of the NHS as charity. In fact, as we shouldn’t need reminding, it’s a public service with adequate taxpayer budget available for all eventualities – it’s only struggling through the pandemic because the Tories have been underfunding it for a decade to purposefully bring it to its knees so it would have no choice but to pimp itself out to Richard Branson.

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Captain Tom’s charity single ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is music to the ears of the Tory donors who want to convince voters that it’s their own responsibility to dig deep to fund their own health treatment. And once we’ve swallowed that idea, the entire system crumbles. After all, at Captain Tom’s current rate of steps to the pound, he’d have to be sprinting to Tahiti and back once a week to cover the NHS’s £134 billion annual budget single-handed.

So it’s lucky the Tories have been working up a simple solution since the late ‘80s: private health insurance. Or the reason that 50 per cent of US cancer patients die bankrupt, as they won’t be putting on the expensive leaflets.

Our last chance of avoiding the thin end of a health insurance wedge being embedded in the small print of the US-UK trade deal disappeared the day Bernie Sanders realised the world was quite happy to slam Dettol shots until all the Covid leaked out of its eyeballs, thanks, and dropped out of the race for President. The stage is set for the Tories to clamber atop the decimated post-pandemic, post-Brexit rubble of our health service, point at Captain Tom as evidence that the current (spit!) socialist system is broken and insist it would be “much fairer” if we all entrusted our health and well-being to the grasping claws of Rees-Mogg Inc Mediclaim Deniers 4 U. Bingo – you’re only one ingrown toenail away from a sex-for-rent agreement.

Captain Tom is, in essence, the Spotify tip jar of the NHS. Bear with me. This month saw the streaming site introduced a function that allows listeners to tip specific artists they like, much as you might once have dropped a pound coin into a busker’s guitar case or compensated a starving bassist with van-based sexual favours. It’s been introduced during the lockdown as a kind of charity appeal – musicians can choose to use donations for virus relief causes or to ease their own pandemic poverty – and it does the same job as Captain Tom does for Boris’s NHS; making it clear that the system doesn’t work and asking us, in times of crisis, to fix it.

For many musicians, tip jars might arrive like a PPE airdrop over NHS Nightingale. On Far Eastern streaming services such as Tencent, the tipping function has become many artists’ primary source of income. The question is, should it be? Should musicians depend on charity and goodwill to survive, making them ever more reliant on a platform making vast sums from their efforts alone and paying them a pittance? The tip jar scheme treats them like serving staff in a restaurant where they create the recipes, pay for the ingredients, cook the food, plate it up perfectly and serve it topped with gratings of the chef’s own soul.

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It’s also a worrying step away from Spotify claiming full responsibility for remunerating its artists, just like unscrupulous chains will justify paying below minimum wage by claiming that staff are ‘working for tips’. The implication is that you’re paying your tenner a month for the privilege of accessing the platform, not the music itself – that’s up to you now. And if fans are paying the musicians, Spotify can justify keeping the lion’s share of their rocketing profits.

In fact, the tip jar merely highlights the fact that Spotify’s model simply doesn’t work for the artist, that their royalty payments of £0.003 per stream are pitifully inadequate by any metric. I mean, Captain Tom would have to rack up 100 million Spotify streams of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ to match one lap of his garden. Now they’re posting monster multi-million-dollar profits, Spotify need to be rapidly increasing their payments until their suppliers – the musicians – can make a fair living off of significant streams.

Of course, Spotify is a profit-driven business, not a publicly funded service, and that’s why such moves are even more concerning. And as the NHS gets contorted along similarly money-driven lines over the coming years, the Captain Tom Moore metaphor only becomes more apposite.

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