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Today I want to talk about piracy and music. What is piracy? Piracy is the act of stealing an artist’s work without any intention of paying for it. I’m not talking about Napster-type software.
I’m talking about major label recording contracts.
I want to start with a story about rock bands and record companies, and do some recording-contract math:
This story is about a bidding-war band that gets a huge deal with a 20 percent royalty rate and a million-dollar advance. (No bidding-war band ever got a 20 percent royalty, but whatever.) This is my “funny” math based on some reality and I just want to qualify it by saying I’m positive it’s better math than what Edgar Bronfman Jr. [the president and CEO of Seagram, which owns Polygram] would provide.
What happens to that million dollars?
They spend half a million to record their album. That leaves the band with $500,000. They pay $100,000 to their manager for 20 percent commission. They pay $25,000 each to their lawyer and business manager.
That leaves $350,000 for the four band members to split. After $170,000 in taxes, there’s $180,000 left. That comes out to $45,000 per person.
That’s $45,000 to live on for a year until the record gets released.
The record is a big hit and sells a million copies. (How a bidding-war band sells a million copies of its debut record is another rant entirely, but it’s based on any basic civics-class knowledge that any of us have about cartels. Put simply, the antitrust laws in this country are basically a joke, protecting us just enough to not have to re-name our park service the Phillip Morris National Park Service.)
So, this band releases two singles and makes two videos. The two videos cost a million dollars to make and 50 percent of the video production costs are recouped out of the band’s royalties.
The band gets $200,000 in tour support, which is 100 percent recoupable.
The record company spends $300,000 on independent radio promotion. You have to pay independent promotion to get your song on the radio; independent promotion is a system where the record companies use middlemen so they can pretend not to know that radio stations — the unified broadcast system — are getting paid to play their records.
All of those independent promotion costs are charged to the band.
Since the original million-dollar advance is also recoupable, the band owes $2 million to the record company.
If all of the million records are sold at full price with no discounts or record clubs, the band earns $2 million in royalties, since their 20 percent royalty works out to $2 a record.
Two million dollars in royalties minus $2 million in recoupable expenses equals … zero!
How much does the record company make?
They grossed $11 million.
It costs $500,000 to manufacture the CDs and they advanced the band $1 million. Plus there were $1 million in video costs, $300,000 in radio promotion and $200,000 in tour support.
The company also paid $750,000 in music publishing royalties.
They spent $2.2 million on marketing. That’s mostly retail advertising, but marketing also pays for those huge posters of Marilyn Manson in Times Square and the street scouts who drive around in vans handing out black Korn T-shirts and backwards baseball caps. Not to mention trips to Scores and cash for tips for all and sundry.
Add it up and the record company has spent about $4.4 million.
So their profit is $6.6 million; the band may as well be working at a 7-Eleven.
Of course, they had fun. Hearing yourself on the radio, selling records, getting new fans and being on TV is great, but now the band doesn’t have enough money to pay the rent and nobody has any credit.
Worst of all, after all this, the band owns none of its work … they can pay the mortgage forever but they’ll never own the house. Like I said: Sharecropping. Our media says, “Boo hoo, poor pop stars, they had a nice ride. Fuck them for speaking up”; but I say this dialogue is imperative. And cynical media people, who are more fascinated with celebrity than most celebrities, need to reacquaint themselves with their value systems.
When you look at the legal line on a CD, it says copyright 1976 Atlantic Records or copyright 1996 RCA Records. When you look at a book, though, it’ll say something like copyright 1999 Susan Faludi, or David Foster Wallace. Authors own their books and license them to publishers. When the contract runs out, writers gets their books back. But record companies own our copyrights forever.
The system’s set up so almost nobody gets paid.
Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)
Last November, a Congressional aide named Mitch Glazier, with the support of the RIAA, added a “technical amendment” to a bill that defined recorded music as “works for hire” under the 1978 Copyright Act.
He did this after all the hearings on the bill were over. By the time artists found out about the change, it was too late. The bill was on its way to the White House for the president’s signature.
That subtle change in copyright law will add billions of dollars to record company bank accounts over the next few years — billions of dollars that rightfully should have been paid to artists. A “work for hire” is now owned in perpetuity by the record company.
Under the 1978 Copyright Act, artists could reclaim the copyrights on their work after 35 years. If you wrote and recorded “Everybody Hurts,” you at least got it back to as a family legacy after 35 years. But now, because of this corrupt little pisher, “Everybody Hurts” never gets returned to your family, and can now be sold to the highest bidder.
Over the years record companies have tried to put “work for hire” provisions in their contracts, and Mr. Glazier claims that the “work for hire” only “codified” a standard industry practice. But copyright laws didn’t identify sound recordings as being eligible to be called “works for hire,” so those contracts didn’t mean anything. Until now.
Writing and recording “Hey Jude” is now the same thing as writing an English textbook, writing standardized tests, translating a novel from one language to another or making a map. These are the types of things addressed in the “work for hire” act. And writing a standardized test is a work for hire. Not making a record.
So an assistant substantially altered a major law when he only had the authority to make spelling corrections. That’s not what I learned about how government works in my high school civics class.
Three months later, the RIAA hired Mr. Glazier to become its top lobbyist at a salary that was obviously much greater than the one he had as the spelling corrector guy.
The RIAA tries to argue that this change was necessary because of a provision in the bill that musicians supported. That provision prevents anyone from registering a famous person’s name as a Web address without that person’s permission. That’s great. I own my name, and should be able to do what I want with my name.
But the bill also created an exception that allows a company to take a person’s name for a Web address if they create a work for hire. Which means a record company would be allowed to own your Web site when you record your “work for hire” album. Like I said: Sharecropping.
Although I’ve never met any one at a record company who “believed in the Internet,” they’ve all been trying to cover their asses by securing everyone’s digital rights. Not that they know what to do with them. Go to a major label-owned band site. Give me a dollar for every time you see an annoying “under construction” sign. I used to pester Geffen (when it was a label) to do a better job. I was totally ignored for two years, until I got my band name back. The Goo Goo Dolls are struggling to gain control of their domain name from Warner Bros. who claim they own the name because they set up a shitty promotional Web site for the band.
Orrin Hatch, songwriter and Republican senator from Utah, seems to be the only person in Washington with a progressive view of copyright law. One lobbyist says that there’s no one in the House with a similar view and that “this would have never happened if Sonny Bono was still alive.”
By the way, which bill do you think the recording industry used for this amendment?
The Record Company Redefinition Act? No. The Music Copyright Act? No. The Work for Hire Authorship Act? No.
How about the Satellite Home Viewing Act of 1999?
Stealing our copyright reversions in the dead of night while no one was looking, and with no hearings held, is piracy.
It’s piracy when the RIAA lobbies to change the bankruptcy law to make it more difficult for musicians to declare bankruptcy. Some musicians have declared bankruptcy to free themselves from truly evil contracts. TLC declared bankruptcy after they received less than 2 percent of the $175 million earned by their CD sales. That was about 40 times less than the profit that was divided among their management, production and record companies.
Toni Braxton also declared bankruptcy in 1998. She sold $188 million worth of CDs, but she was broke because of a terrible recording contract that paid her less than 35 cents per album. Bankruptcy can be an artist’s only defense against a truly horrible deal and the RIAA wants to take it away.
Artists want to believe that we can make lots of money if we’re successful. But there are hundreds of stories about artists in their 60s and 70s who are broke because they never made a dime from their hit records. And real success is still a long shot for a new artist today. Of the 32,000 new releases each year, only 250 sell more than 10,000 copies. And less than 30 go platinum.
The four major record corporations fund the RIAA. These companies are rich and obviously well-represented. Recording artists and musicians don’t really have the money to compete. The 273,000 working musicians in America make about $30,000 a year. Only 15 percent of American Federation of Musicians members work steadily in music.
But the music industry is a $40 billion-a-year business. One-third of that revenue comes from the United States. The annual sales of cassettes, CDs and video are larger than
the gross national product of 80 countries. Americans have more CD players, radios and VCRs than we have bathtubs.
Story after story gets told about artists — some of them in their 60s and 70s, some of them authors of huge successful songs that we all enjoy, use and sing — living in total poverty, never having been paid anything. Not even having access to a union or to basic health care. Artists who have generated billions of dollars for an industry die broke and un-cared for.
And they’re not actors or participators. They’re the rightful owners, originators and performers of original compositions.
This is piracy.
Technology is not piracy
This opinion is one I really haven’t formed yet, so as I speak about Napster now, please understand that I’m not totally informed. I will be the first in line to file a class action suit to protect my copyrights if Napster or even the far more advanced Gnutella doesn’t work with us to protect us. I’m on [Metallica drummer] Lars Ulrich’s side, in other words, and I feel really badly for him that he doesn’t know how to condense his case down to a sound-bite that sounds more reasonable than the one I saw today.
I also think Metallica is being given too much grief. It’s anti-artist, for one thing. An artist speaks up and the artist gets squashed: Sharecropping. Don’t get above your station, kid. It’s not piracy when kids swap music over the Internet using Napster or Gnutella or Freenet or iMesh or beaming their CDs into a My.MP3.com or MyPlay.com music locker. It’s piracy when those guys that run those companies make side deals with the cartel lawyers and label heads so that they can be “the labels’ friend,” and not the artists’.
Recording artists have essentially been giving their music away for free under the old system, so new technology that exposes our music to a larger audience can only be a good thing. Why aren’t these companies working with us to create some peace?
There were a billion music downloads last year, but music sales are up. Where’s the evidence that downloads hurt business? Downloads are creating more demand.
Why aren’t record companies embracing this great opportunity? Why aren’t they trying to talk to the kids passing compilations around to learn what they like? Why is the RIAA suing the companies that are stimulating this new demand? What’s the point of going after people swapping cruddy-sounding MP3s? Cash! Cash they have no intention of passing onto us, the writers of their profits.
At this point the “record collector” geniuses who use Napster don’t have the coolest most arcane selection anyway, unless you’re into techno. Hardly any pre-1982 REM fans, no ’60s punk, even the Alan Parsons Project was underrepresented when I tried to find some Napster buddies. For the most part, it was college boy rawk without a lot of imagination. Maybe that’s the demographic that cares — and in that case, My Bloody Valentine and Bert Jansch aren’t going to get screwed just yet. There’s still time to negotiate.
Destroying traditional access
Somewhere along the way, record companies figured out that it’s a lot more profitable to control the distribution system than it is to nurture artists. And since the companies didn’t have any real competition, artists had no other place to go. Record companies controlled the promotion and marketing; only they had the ability to get lots of radio play, and get records into all the big chain store. That power put them above both the artists and the audience. They own the plantation.
Being the gatekeeper was the most profitable place to be, but now we’re in a world half without gates. The Internet allows artists to communicate directly with their audiences; we don’t have to depend solely on an inefficient system where the record company promotes our records to radio, press or retail and then sits back and hopes fans find out about our music.
Record companies don’t understand the intimacy between artists and their fans. They put records on the radio and buy some advertising and hope for the best. Digital distribution gives everyone worldwide, instant access to music.
And filters are replacing gatekeepers. In a world where we can get anything we want, whenever we want it, how does a company create value? By filtering. In a world without friction, the only friction people value is editing. A filter is valuable when it understands the needs of both artists and the public. New companies should be conduits between musicians and their fans.
Right now the only way you can get music is by shelling out $17. In a world where music costs a nickel, an artist can “sell” 100 million copies instead of just a million.
The present system keeps artists from finding an audience because it has too many artificial scarcities: limited radio promotion, limited bin space in stores and a limited number of spots on the record company roster.
The digital world has no scarcities. There are countless ways to reach an audience. Radio is no longer the only place to hear a new song. And tiny mall record stores aren’t the only place to buy a new CD.
Now artists have options. We don’t have to work with major labels anymore, because the digital economy is creating new ways to distribute and market music. And the free ones amongst us aren’t going to. That means the slave class, which I represent, has to find ways to get out of our deals. This didn’t really matter before, and that’s why we all stayed.
I want my seven-year contract law California labor code case to mean something to other artists. (Universal Records sues me because I leave because my employment is up, but they say a recording contract is not a personal contract; because the recording industry — who, we have established, are excellent lobbyists, getting, as they did, a clerk to disallow Don Henley or Tom Petty the right to give their copyrights to their families — in California, in 1987, lobbied to pass an amendment that nullified recording contracts as personal contracts, sort of. Maybe. Kind of. A little bit. And again, in the dead of night, succeeded.)
That’s why I’m willing to do it with a sword in my teeth. I expect I’ll be ignored or ostracized following this lawsuit. I expect that the treatment you’re seeing Lars Ulrich get now will quadruple for me. Cool. At least I’ll serve a purpose. I’m an artist and a good artist, I think, but I’m not that artist that has to play all the time, and thus has to get fucked. Maybe my laziness and self-destructive streak will finally pay off and serve a community desperately in need of it. They can’t torture me like they could Lucinda Williams.
You funny dot-communists. Get your shit together, you annoying sucka VCs
I want to work with people who believe in music and art and passion. And I’m just the tip of the iceberg. I’m leaving the major label system and there are hundreds of artists who are going to follow me. There’s an unbelievable opportunity for new companies that dare to get it right.
How can anyone defend the current system when it fails to deliver music to so many potential fans? That only expects of itself a “5 percent success rate” a year? The status quo gives us a boring culture. In a society of over 300 million people, only 30 new artists a year sell a million records. By any measure, that’s a huge failure.
Maybe each fan will spend less money, but maybe each artist will have a better chance of making a living. Maybe our culture will get more interesting than the one currently owned by Time Warner. I’m not crazy. Ask yourself, are any of you somehow connected to Time Warner media? I think there are a lot of yeses to that and I’d have to say that in that case president McKinley truly failed to bust any trusts. Maybe we can remedy that now.
Artists will make that compromise if it means we can connect with hundreds of millions of fans instead of the hundreds of thousands that we have now. Especially if we lose all the crap that goes with success under the current system. I’m willing, right now, to leave half of these trappings — fuck it, all these trappings — at the door to have a pure artist experience. They cosset us with trappings to shut us up. That way when we say “sharecropper!” you can point to my free suit and say “Shut up pop star.”
Here, take my Prada pants. Fuck it. Let us do our real jobs. And those of us addicted to celebrity because we have nothing else to give will fade away. And those of us addicted to celebrity because it was there will find a better, purer way to live.
Since I’ve basically been giving my music away for free under the old system, I’m not afraid of wireless, MP3 files or any of the other threats to my copyrights. Anything that makes my music more available to more people is great. MP3 files sound cruddy, but a well-made album sounds great. And I don’t care what anyone says about digital recordings. At this point they are good for dance music, but try listening to a warm guitar tone on them. They suck for what I do.
Record companies are terrified of anything that challenges their control of distribution. This is the business that insisted that CDs be sold in incredibly wasteful 6-by-12 inch long boxes just because no one thought you could change the bins in a record store.
Let’s not call the major labels “labels.” Let’s call them by their real names: They are the distributors. They’re the only distributors and they exist because of scarcity. Artists pay 95 percent of whatever we make to gatekeepers because we used to need gatekeepers to get our music heard. Because they have a system, and when they decide to spend enough money — all of it recoupable, all of it owed by me — they can occasionally shove things through this system, depending on a lot of arbitrary factors.
The corporate filtering system, which is the system that brought you (in my humble opinion) a piece of crap like “Mambo No. 5″ and didn’t let you hear the brilliant Cat Power record or the amazing new Sleater Kinney record, obviously doesn’t have good taste anyway. But we’ve never paid major label/distributors for their good taste. They’ve never been like Yahoo and provided a filter service.