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Artists Strike a Chord | The Nation

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Artists Strike a Chord

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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.

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Johnny Temple
Johnny Temple plays bass guitar in the rock bands Girls Against Boys and New Wet Kojak and is the publisher of Akashic...

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In more than fifteen years of rock-and-roll touring, my worst night of
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"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."

Future of Music Coalition executive director Jenny Toomey, herself a recording artist (Antidote, her first solo album, was released late last year), sees the current legislative battles as early steps toward developing a "middle class" of recording artists. Now, they are divided into wealthy, successful musicians on the one hand and those scraping by with day jobs on the other. When signing with a major label, an artist's advance is expected to fund the recording of an album, with the balance going into the artist's pocket. Frequently, however, after managers and lawyers take their cuts, little or nothing is left over. Most artists will never sell enough records to earn royalties beyond that initial advance, and too many find themselves unable even to afford health insurance just months after signing a "big" deal. "A lot of these issues come down to collective bargaining rights," Toomey explains. "Right now, what we have is freelance artists in negotiations with large corporations that own the pipeline. The question is whether or not artists in that position can ever, even with the best representation in the world, negotiate a fair wage for themselves when they're dependent upon the pipeline in order to become successful."

The RIAA and the Big Five have not, to say the least, been afraid to defend themselves. The very day that Murray announced his legislation, executives from a handful of record companies sent him a letter claiming the bill would "create a competitive disadvantage" for labels based in California. Miles Copeland, head of Ark 21 Records (an "independent" distributed through Vivendi/Universal) argues that it is an "inappropriate" time for musicians to register their grievances: "Why on earth are the artists attacking the record labels as rich fat cats who are making a disproportionate share of the money when two of the majors declared that they lost money last year?"

To struggling artists, this sounds like a sob story from a lucrative industry in an off year. As for the complaint about discriminating against California-based labels, Conyers is drafting legislation that would limit artist contracts to seven years nationally, and would also guarantee direct payment of Internet royalties to artists. That, Copeland insists, would amount to a "huge intrusion of the government on heavily negotiated contracts."

If the majority of major-label artists have trouble paying rent, isn't the industry in need of an overhaul? "I think the system works fine," says Copeland. "The casualty rate in our business is nine [records] out of ten, which is no worse than restaurants." But most musicians don't want to be someone else's poker chip; they'd welcome a government "intrusion" that could guarantee them a shot--not at stardom, but at a living wage.

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