Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Who needs a royalty check?

I sometime feel the focus on copyright enforcement, downloading, etc and what such things can or can't do for musicians is a big trick to distract people from where most of the action happens in the music industry - the recording contract.

Lots of the breast beating over how law-breaking hurts artists is missing the point. The thing is, contracts are the main engine for massively ripping artists off, but they do it completely legally, because American law operates on this fantasy principle that contract negotiations are between individuals even when, as for a lot of music, on one side you have a single person (or three in a band) and on the other side you have a massive multinational corporation with in-house lawyers and years of experience. A counter-example that supports this is session musicians, who tend to be unionized: their bargaining position is better as part of a union and while they may (also) give up their copyrights, they have a much better chance of making steady and decent money. A change in the law isn't what made the difference between the experience of session musicians and the experience of most artistes seeking fame - a change in bargaining power did.

The biggest story should not be the relationship between artists and fans, but between artists and labels - that's where the real power imbalance has been. However, every now and again an artist can get something in a contract that will work in their favor -when it does, who needs a royalty check?

Roxanne Shante's story is a hilarious example

And before anyone tries to use this as an example to say "see, artists CAN negotiate good contracts" her story makes clear that her ability to do that was based in the label's racist, ageist and classist assumptions about what "education" means to a 15-year-old black girl with a baby. Not something we should be counting on, for a few reasons (mainly because I'm sure Warner Bros won't do that again!)

Go on, Roxanne Shante. And I'll definitely be stopping by your vegan ice cream shop (hip-hop ices) when I get to new york next.


  1. Great clip.
    In one of the last meetings i sat in when i worked for Virgin Records, somebody was talking about TV-advertising records, and how the label approaches an artist with the view to advertise their album on TV. The way it´s presented to the artist/management is that both parties (label and artist) will take the same percentage cut in royalties, however with cunning slyness, the artist ends up taking a massive cut, while the label´s reduction is a lot less that the artist, who is already only getting an average of 15% on the 90%. I was gobsmacked at the display of one-upmanship, but you think these mofo´s gave a shit?! Hell no.

  2. Seems like someone didn't like that story being told.

    "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by QD3 Entertainment"