On the Record: Toward a Union Label | The Nation


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On the Record: Toward a Union Label

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Recording artists don't have a single union that looks out for their interests. AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) has a contract with major labels for vocalists and the AFM (American Federation of Musicians) has a contract for non-singing musicians and session players.

If you're in a band, your singer is represented by a different union (AFTRA) than the rest of your group (who are represented by the AFM). AFTRA negotiates contracts for TV and radio performers. They don't pay very much attention to the recording business; it's not their priority. The AFM acts like band members are sidemen and session players because that's mostly who the union represents.

Record companies like this system because neither union represents all artists. AFTRA and AFM only negotiate session fees and other minor issues for the singers or the "sidemen."

Who looks after our interests in Washington? Until very recently, Congress believed that the Recording Industry Association of America spoke for recording artists. The RIAA is a trade group that is paid for by record companies to represent their interests. The Napster hearings last summer and a few other issues have let Washington know that NO ONE speaks for recording artists right now. We have their attention and must act quickly to make sure artists have a voice.


Compare yourself to actors and baseball players. Like the music business, the film and the sports industries generate billions of dollars in income each year, but those industries offer far better benefits to the men and women who create their wealth.

The Screen Actors Guild offers a fantastic health care plan to its members. That health plan is paid for by the contracts that SAG has negotiated with film studios. The baseball players' union has negotiated a pension plan that ensures that NO major league player ever finds himself without an income. Why shouldn't recording artists get the same benefits?


Record companies have a 3% success rate. That means that 3% of all records released by major labels go gold or platinum. How do record companies get away with a 97% failure rate that would be totally unacceptable in any other business?

Record companies keep almost all the profits. Recording artists get paid a tiny fraction of the money earned by their music. That allows record executives to be incredibly sloppy in running their companies and still create enormous amounts of cash for the corporations that own them.

The royalty rates granted in every recording contract are very low to start with and then companies charge back every conceivable cost to an artist's royalty account. Artists pay for recording costs, video production costs, tour support, radio promotion, sales and marketing costs, packaging costs and any other cost the record company can subtract from their royalties.

Record companies also reduce royalties by "forgetting" to report sales figures, miscalculating royalties and by preventing artists from auditing record company books.

Recording contracts are unfair and a single artist negotiating an individual deal doesn't have the leverage to change the system. Artists will finally get paid what they deserve when they band together and force the recording industry to negotiate with them AS A GROUP.

Thousands of successful artists who sold hundreds of millions of records and generated billions of dollars in profits for record companies find themselves broke and forgotten by the industry they made wealthy.

Here are just a few examples of what we're talking about:

Multiplatinum artists like TLC ("Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," "Waterfalls" and "No Scrubs") and Toni Braxton ("Unbreak My Heart" and "Breathe Again") have been forced to declare bankruptcy because their recording contracts didn't pay them enough to survive.

Corrupt recording agreements forced the heirs of Jimi Hendrix ("Purple Haze," "All Along the Watchtower" and "Stone Free") to work menial jobs while his catalogue generated millions of dollars each year for Universal Music.

Florence Ballard from the Supremes ("Where Did Our Love Go," "Stop in the Name of Love" and "You Keep Me Hangin' On" are just 3 of the 10 #1 hits she sang on) was on welfare when she died.

Collective Soul earned almost no money from "Shine," one of the biggest alternative rock hits of the 90s, when Atlantic paid almost all of their royalties to an outside production company.

Merle Haggard ("I Threw Away the Rose," "Sing Me Back Home" and "Today I Started Loving You Again") enjoyed a string of 37 top-ten country singles (including 23 #1 hits) in the 1960s and '70s. Yet he was consistently shortchanged until last year, when he released an album on the indie punk-rock label Epitaph.

Even Elvis Presley, the biggest-selling artist of all time, died with an estate valued at not even $3 million.

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