Johnny Temple plays bass guitar in the rock bands Girls Against Boys and New Wet Kojak and is the publisher of Akashic Books (www.akashicbooks.com). The new Girls Against Boys album, You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See, is forthcoming from Jade Tree Records, an independent, in May.
“It is an unfortunate fact of life that the entertainment industry has a history in which artists have sometimes been relegated to near-servitude status.” Speaking from the podium center-stage on January 8 at the Future of Music Coalition’s second annual policy summit, this was no amped-up artist’s advocate or entitled rock star. It was Michigan Congressman John Conyers, ranking minority member on the House Judiciary Committee, addressing a rapt audience of music executives, managers, union reps, radio programmers, song publishers, lawyers, journalists, fans and artists. As this gathering made clear, the Big Five music industry conglomerates, bruised by a year of terrible sales and vexed by the ongoing digital dilemma, are facing the additional threat of an increasingly empowered artist community with new allies in government.
The previous day at the summit, California State Senator Kevin Murray unveiled a bill that would grant recording artists a greater degree of free agency in contract negotiations. California law restricts artist contracts to seven years, but a 1987 amendment ushered in by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)–the major labels’ lobbying arm–suspended that protection for recording artists [see Johnny Temple and Courtney Love, “On the Record: Toward a Union Label,” April 23, 2001]. As a result, musicians can be locked into exclusive contracts that may last decades. A former artist agent from Los Angeles, Murray announced his intention to reinstate the seven-year limit, saying, “Now is the time for artists to take up arms and fight for their rights!”
Murray’s maneuver gives weight to recent efforts by a cadre of high-profile artists–Sheryl Crow, the Eagles, Elton John, Courtney Love, Stevie Nicks, Billy Joel, the Offspring, Tom Petty and others–to challenge what they see as unfairness in nearly every major-label recording contract. With a shrinking number of giant conglomerates setting the industry standards, there is a rank unanimity among them on the most egregious contractual points (i.e., fabricated royalty deductions, denial of health benefits to musicians, etc.). Organized labor has been slow in challenging these practices, so groups like the DC-based Future of Music Coalition (www.futureofmusic.org) are emerging to champion artists’ rights. “Every other advocacy group has an organized lobby,” Senator Murray reflected from his district office in Culver City a week after the summit. “If musicians want their issues to be heard, the fact is they need to be organized. The Recording Artist Coalition, the Future of Music Coalition and even the unions–AFTRA and AFM–are getting more active in this type of advocacy.”