David Arditi is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington and the author of Getting Signed: Record Contracts, Musicians, and Power in Society. David’s academic work stems from his time as a drummer, particularly from a fateful conversation with another band member about the whether Napster was helping or hurting the band. “When I began work on my Master’s thesis, I decided to write about Napster,” he says. “Ever since then my research has focused on two areas: 1) the effect digital technology has on music and 2) musician labor.” In this excerpt from our interview, David explains what the book is all about.
As a musician, I had countless conversations with musicians who wanted to sign record contracts. Often when I’d interact with a band from out of town, they’d have a chip on their shoulders about being in talks with A&R staff or recently inking a deal. Then I had a conversation with a colleague who spent years gigging in Austin, TX. He told me about how every band playing at SXSW walked around with that chip on their shoulder about getting signed and being the next big thing. This led me to trying to learn why musicians hold this belief that contracts are an indication of success.
Throughout my research the popular talent show kept coming up talking to informants who had been on the show or hoped to be on it. For months, I contacted the show’s staff and NBC publicity staff trying to gain access to the facility to speak with contestants. Unfortunately, they would either ignore me or give me a run-around. When they did respond, they treated me as a reporter (note: they do give plenty of access to NBC reporters to “cover” the “story”).
structure of record contracts and how they support a culture of artist exploitation in the music industry.
The show proliferates the dream of signing a record contract for aspiring musicians and their families. The quantitative awards, measured from April 2019 to March 2020, crown the best-selling artists across multiple genres and through multiple categories. Since the award show prioritizes sales, winners need to sell or stream a lot of music to win.
How do musicians sell a lot of music? They need a record contract.
For this reason, record contracts have long been the end goal for aspiring musicians and synonymous with an artist’s “big break.”
Kanye West has generated a conversation around this in recent weeks when he documented his fight to get out of his contract with Universal. He champions the return of power to the creators, not the labels.
Kanye’s fight is just scratching the surface of how deeply these exploitative power struggles run. In my new book, Getting Signed: Record Contracts, Musicians, and Power in Society, I take a deep dive into how the recording industry capitalizes on artists’ dreams of stardom and wealth to lock them into unfavorable contracts that never make enough money for artists to repay the advances they receive in exchange for copyrights.
Musicians sign record contracts for a multitude of reasons, and record labels cite specific business rationale to justify these contracts. But these contracts are the fundamental mechanism through which profit is generated for entities other than the musicians themselves – otherwise known as exploitation.
Too many artists and fans believe that signing a contract holds the key to success, which is why there are always more people desiring a contract than the industry can sustain. This crowded market depresses wages and obscures the reality. And yet, record contracts remain the only viable path to success in the recording industry.
This contract model works for very few people – the 1% of musicians. That’s what we’ll see on TV on Oct. 14.
These musicians undoubtedly deserve the accolades they receive. But aspiring musicians would benefit from understanding the realities of the industry that are shielded by the glitz of these awards.
As music lovers, we should strive to put control in the hands of artists. Connect directly with local bands and artists you love. Show up and support them when they book a night at a local bar or restaurant. Stream local artists and purchase their music if it’s available. It provides them the power of numbers to show they have a following that makes them worth an investment.
Giving our support to artists in any capacity outside of exploitative circumstances gives them a larger share of voice and more meaningful platform to stand on as they inch closer toward their ultimate dream.
As a steward and major player in the industry, Billboard should offer transparency about the limited segment of artists we’re seeing. They could discuss the number of songs and albums produced during the year to give viewers contextual data about the limited chances of winning these awards. Or they could offer a segment about how record contracts work with commentary from a big-name artist.
A peek behind the curtain would teach those watching at home to follow their dreams and pursue what they love while remaining wise to the pitfalls and of the industry
This week, I talk to Dr. Eleanor Peters about the link between music and crime, the Beatles and UK Drill music.
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In Getting Signed, Arditi, associate professor of sociology, analyzes the ways in which the recording industry and its contracts capitalize on artists’ dreams and work as a disadvantage to musicians.
“I hope that by reading Getting Signed people will begin to reconsider the role of record contracts in musicians’ lives,” Arditi said. “We need a system that pays musicians for their labor instead of one that harnesses their dreams to generate revenue for the label. The vast majority of these musicians never earn money from the contracts.”
Arditi was a gigging drummer before dedicating himself to the academic side of the music industry. He used these formative years as a musician, during which he said he observed firsthand the hopes, dreams and failures of his peers trying to make it in the music business, to inform his perspective for Getting Signed.
Building on his personal experiences, Arditi spent five years interviewing musicians, concert bookers, family members of recording artists and others who work in the industry to gain insight on the dream of getting signed to a record label and the lengths artists will go to achieve it.
Arditi’s process focused on the “social phenomenon” that encompasses the desire to sign record contracts, rather than the celebrity dreams of individual musicians. That makes the critical analysis of Getting Signed one-of-a-kind within the lexicon of the sociology of music, he said.
To illustrate this phenomenon, Arditi takes readers through familiar elements of popular culture in which the aspirations of artists are exploited for entertainment and the profit of others. In one chapter, Arditi looks at NBC’s The Voice as a perpetuator of advancing the dream of signing record contracts among musicians and audience members alike. All the while, the television show exploits the tireless work of unpaid contestants as executives and celebrity coaches bring in millions of dollars for themselves each season.
“David has dedicated himself to being a champion for musicians and the value of music, and his new book provides a wealth of information on how we can all follow his lead,” said Beth Anne Shelton, chair of the UTA Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “Furthermore, he shows our Maverick students how the principles taught in the classroom can be applied creatively to pursue and fuel their interests, which is invaluable in higher education.”
Ultimately, Arditi said, he envisions ways to rethink the current recording industry structure, like rethinking copyright and pay structures. Such changes could help move musicians and music lovers away from the dream of signing a record contract.
“Despite the shortfalls, there are obvious benefits to musicians in signing record contracts. But the model works for very few people,” Arditi said. “Furthermore, record contracts produce and operate within specific institutions that in turn affect the creation of music.
“By rethinking our systems, we not only have the opportunity to put power back in the hands of musicians but also to subsequently expand the kind of music being made, which enriches the music experience for us all.”
As a musician, I spent years observing other musicians dream of signing record contracts. At the same time, these contracts take advantage of those who sign them. In exchange for a large cash advance to record an album, musicians sign away their copyrights and their ability to record music on their own. Few artists ever recoup their advance and even fewer make money from the sale of their music. This led me to wonder, why do musicians desire these exploitative contracts? For four years, I conducted an ethnography, where I observed and interviewed musicians, their families, booking agents, club managers, music executives, and everyone in between to answer this question.
However, while researching this question, I recognized the answer was low hanging fruit. Instead the question became one about ideology. How does the dream of record contracts pervade American society?
I spent a lot of time hanging out with musicians and fans at music venues through this research. People discussing “getting signed” was an ubiquitous topic in these venues, but no one discussed the contracts. What do they do? Why would one want to sign one? Who do they benefit? These questions go left unstated. Rather, the subtext of discussing record contracts is the idea that one “made it” after they sign a contract. In fact, in my more formal interviews, I often heard a record contract was a way for musicians to identify that playing music was their “real” job.
We live in a media environment where the images we see on television and through social media shows us the opulence of “rock stars.” However, this opulence is often artifice. From rented houses on MTV Cribs to the omnipresence of people like Lil Nas X. We think these people have tons of money, but often they are broke and filing for bankruptcy. The dream is sold to us through talent shows like The Voice and people pay-to-play in “artist showcases” that lead nowhere.
The fact is record contracts exploit artists, in worse ways than Kanye West recently discussed. If you want to learn more, read Getting Signed and send me an email!
This year’s American Sociological Association Conference took place virtually. This gave me the opportunity to record my presentation and share it with everyone. I presented part of a chapter on The Voice from my forthcoming book Getting Signed. Watch and let me know what you think.