Musicians are Laborers

Previously, I mentioned that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) won its first lawsuit against people sharing music via the Internet. As long as there has been copyright legislation, there has been “piracy” – I’m sure that someone was bootlegging print copies of Beethoven’s symphonies. However, no one had been charged for pirating something where they were in turn not profiting from its sale. Sharing music online is not the same thing as selling illegally reproduced music. Furthermore, all of this is being done in the name of the musicians – the RIAA argues that when people download music on file-sharing programs, they are stealing from musicians. But where is the money going from the RIAA’s litigation? Typically the money from lawsuits (not just about file-sharing) goes back to the RIAA and the major record labels. What follows is a brief explanation of why the RIAA and the major record labels are more exploitative of musicians than file-sharers. Future blog posts will further elucidate the erroneous nature of the music industry’s arguments about file-sharing.


There are two competing interests in the discourse about downloading copyrighted music on the internet with regard to the ownership of those copyrights. The two interests involved here are those of the major record labels and those of musicians. When I refer to the “major record labels” I am talking about the so-called “Big Four” – Sony Music Entertainment, EMI, Universal and Warner Music Group. In 2003 there were Five Major record labels and they collectively controlled 84.8% of all recorded music in the US ; today the Big Four still averages around 85% of all music sold in the US and 75% of the music sold around the world. Even independent record labels are most frequently owned by one of the majors; majors by indie labels, so that the Artist & Repertoire (A&R) departments can stay flexible in niche markets. Musicians are not limited to those artists signed to one of the “Big Four” and statistics are more difficult to collect on who is a professional musician (someone that makes a living playing music). There is also a diverse set of interests among musicians as some musicians benefit from their relationship with the Big Four and others are only exploited by the major record labels.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is the major player that claims to represent the interests of the recording industry. It describes its mission the following way:
The RIAA is the trade group that represents the U.S. recording industry. Its mission is to foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes our members’ creative and financial vitality. Its members are the record companies that comprise the most vibrant national music industry in the world. RIAA members create, manufacture and/or distribute approximately 90% of all legitimate sound recordings produced and sold in the United States.

It does not explicitly make the claim that the RIAA represents the interests of the musicians in the recording industry, but it does allude to representing them by claiming that its members own “approximately 90% of all legitimate sound recordings” (it should also be noted that two years ago, the “about” section of the RIAA’s website included musicians as a group that it represents). In fact, in court cases and when lobbying Congress, the RIAA is much more explicit that they represent the interests of musicians. However, the recording industry does not share the same interests as the musicians that perform the music that they sell.
The claim that the RIAA represents musicians is similar to the representatives of the Auto Industry claiming to represent the interests of auto workers. The United Auto Workers of America (UAW) was created specifically because workers felt that their labor was being exploited by the auto industry. While the auto workers are part of the industry, their labor interests only align with that of the auto industry when it comes down to whether or not the industry will continue to exist (and even then they disagree on the means). There is a musicians union that represents workers called the American Federation of musicians (AFM), but it is not a strong player in the power relations of the recording industry. The union’s general purpose is to help set standard or minimum wages in cities where there is a high percentage of professional musicians, but it should be noted that many musicians avoid the union so their payments can be kept under-the-table.
Working conditions for musicians vary greatly depending on whether or not they are signed to a label, the type of label they are signed to, and the popularity of the musician. Because of the varying conditions and categories of employment for musicians, it is difficult to describe the labor relations of musicians. However, I would like to focus on the most typical contractual arrangement for newly signed artists on the major record labels and their affiliates. On more than one occasion this relationship has been described as that of a sharecropper. A record contract creates a type of loan between the label and the artist. The artist must pay for the recording, production, manufacture, distribution, publicity and still find money to pay the musicians in the contract out of a set sum of money; all of the money loaned in that contract must in turn be paid back to the record labels. Here I am going to skip some of the details of these contracts, but I want to point out that the money that musicians get to pay back the loan is a small percentage of the sale of an album. Other players in the contract (the label, producers, etc.) get money from a separate percentage of album sales in addition to what the musicians owe each entity. What this means is that while the artists are trying to pay back the labels, everyone is already getting a cut of the profits. Some musicians end-up making millions of dollars, but they are an extreme minority and still maintain a position of labor in relation to record labels; however, the typical arrangement of musicians never allows them to fully payback the record labels. What I hope is clear at this point is that musicians are labor even though we may not always think of them as “working class”.
Kittler, F. A. (1999). Gramophone, film, typewriter. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Lessig, L. (2004). Free culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity. New York: Penguin Press.
McCullagh, D. (2009, March 3, 2009). Obama picks Net neutrality backer as FCC chief. CNet News.

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One thought on “Musicians are Laborers

  1. Pingback: All musicians deserve a wage | iTake-Over

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