Tuesday, April 5, 2011

2001: Record Industry Weasels

You can’t have records without a record company - or at least that’s the way it used to be. Now that both artists and consumers have other options, you’d think the industry weasels would go out of their way to avoid pissing us off any further. But of course, exactly the opposite is the case. Intent on trying to replicate the CD revolution, when millions of us paid twice as much for music we already owned, the Big Five record companies are desperately trying to smash Napster and anything else that threatens their stranglehold on distribution.

They’ll fail, of course - but not without doing a lot of damage in the process. There will never be a foolproof copy-protected form of digital music. That doesn’t mean that people will stop paying for music. If the universal jukebox of recorded music is made available at a reasonable price, people will pay to access it, rather than spend time searching and downloading. File trading should be an asset to that process, helping to break artists the industry is too clueless to promote. But remember that the record companies originally sued to prevent records from being played on the radio.

The big labels will survive, but their power will inevitably decline, like broadcast networks in the age of cable. And that decline will be the well-deserved result of decades of bad karma in standing between us and the musicians we love. This is the industry that sued Neil Young because his records didn’t sound enough like “Neil Young records.” This is the industry that sued John Fogerty because he sounded too much like John Fogerty. The weasel who owned the rights to the Creedence catalogue actually took its author to court for self-plagiarism. It took three years before the jury found that the “owner” of the songs was an evil greedhead.

John Fogerty’s legal troubles with his old label have cost him as much as twenty productive years out of his career. But as Courtney Love has pointed out, this is just one example of the many ways in which musicians are exploited by the labels they work for. In a scathing frontal attack on the industry, Love details the stories of artists like Flo Ballard of the Supremes, who died on welfare, or the heirs of Jimi Hendrix, who worked menial jobs while the industry got rich on his music. Even the most successful artists of all time - the Beatles, Eagles, Nirvana and others, receive only a fraction of the fortunes their work generates for the companies who own it. The Beatles have never owned the rights to their own songs, finding themselves outbid every time the catalogue changes hands. Even Elvis, whose career brought billions to RCA, and still sells phenomenally, died with a net worth of about $3 million.

The point isn’t that we should feel sorry for these superstars, but that if they get scammed to this extent, what happens to the thousands of recording artists who are just barely making it? The answer is that far too many of them end up in debt to their labels, unable to make back the money advanced to them to make the recording in the first place. Love argues that athletes and actors get much better deals for their work, with even the lesser among them having access to health care and pension plans. Of course, those rights weren’t handed to them - they came about after years of struggle and union organizing. Courtney and others are trying to get that kind of movement going, and the new vulnerability of the industry gives the artists leverage they haven’t had before. She reports that she has the support of R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, U2, Alanis Morissette, Prince and Q-Tip. They deserve our support as well.

If these musicians are able to set up an artist-controlled label (similar to what Chaplin and others did in starting United Artists in the early days of Hollywood), we need to make sure they succeed by voting with our wallets. Otherwise we will find ourselves literally robbed of music that won’t get made because the beancounters are in charge. Right now the analogy is not to actors or athletes but to authors. Publishing houses used to nurture the careers of promising writers, and use the income generated by a few star authors to help the others survive until they reached their potential. Now mergers and takeovers have left marketing departments and snotnosed MBAs deciding what will and won’t get published.

The combination of high-tech online distribution and old-fashioned union organizing gives us the chance to put a stake through the hearts of the vampires who live off of our music. We owe it to the musicians to help them tip the power balance, so that the labels stick to their strengths in marketing and promoting, and leave the art to the artists. After all, I’m willing to bet that music has saved your life. It’s time to return the favor.

Note: Love's efforts to create a musician's label did not come to fruition. However, it's easier than ever for artists to start their own labels these days. Much of the work of advocacy for musicians' rights is carried on by the Future of Music Coalition

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