Musicians must be compensated for their labor. While musicians create music in a number of ways, very few are paid for the time they spend making music, especially those musicians signed to record contracts. Prince, David Byrne and Courtney Love have described how recording contracts trap artists in highly exploitative relationships with their labels. The fact that an artist must recoup their advance before they make any money exploits the vast majority of recording artists because few ever recoup their advance. Alternatively, not signing a record contract and playing small bars/clubs is no way to pay for a mortgage. This means that many musicians are forced to work multiple precarious jobs to make ends meet while most would like to find a way to earn a living from performing, recording, and writing. For instance, a study in Austin, TX found that three-fourths of musicians who earn all of their income from music make less than $25,000 (pre-tax). Enough is enough: musicians deserve a living wage.
Increasingly, there is a loud call for musicians to be fairly compensated, but the call itself confuses the problem that threatens the livelihood of so many musicians. The conflict has been constructed as one between tech companies and major labels: Silicon Valley vs. Hollywood. Tech companies, the argument goes, are not compensating rights holders. However, it is important to consider where, along the line of production, musicians are exploited.
At the 2015 Grammys, the Recording Academy made waves by announcing a new organization aimed at compensating musicians by lobbying Congress. The Creators Alliance was launched to ensure “fair pay for all music creators across all platforms.” Spotify and other streaming services were described at the 2015 Grammys as the threat that would bring an end to musicians being able to earn a living from their craft. Neil Portnow went as far as to say there would be no new artists if they can’t be compensated for their work; Portnow made a similar overture at the 2016 Grammys. Of course, this misdiagnoses the problem (musicians have never been fairly compensated) and ignores that musicians create music, now, without compensation. This position supports the 1% of recording artists at the expense of all other musicians. Furthermore, such a position is remarkably similar to that of the major record labels; however, we must remember that label interests and artists have divergent interests (see iTake-Over p.48-52 for a longer examination of this divergence).
The major record label position is that intermediaries skim revenue from the reproduction and/or performance of an artist’s music. At the beginning of the digital era, we saw this with Napster and file sharing. Now the rhetoric is often aimed at digital streaming companies, which organizations, such as the Creators Alliance, claim do not pay musicians enough per stream. However, it is clear that record labels make money from streaming services whether subscription or ad-supported. The problem for recording artists is that record labels retain the bulk of the revenue from streaming services, and pay recording artists and songwriters very little for their work.
Musicians need to be compensated fairly; however, the target of these critiques is misguided. Again, the problem is the system that permits musicians to be exploited in the first place – a system that depends on copyrights to compensate recording artists. Musicians, no matter their degree of celebrity, need to come together and rethink the underlying system that exploits the work of musicians. That system is one in which record labels use contract law to negotiate away the rights of recording artists as stipulated under copyright and labor laws.
Musicians signed to record contracts are labor, but they are not compensated for their work. They produce a product for a corporation, but then they rely on selling that product, in very large quantities, for any compensation. Creating content for a corporation is no different from workers in other sectors of the culture (or content) industry, but the compensation is a different world. Video game designers are paid a wage for their work. Software engineers are paid a wage for their work. Hollywood screenwriters are paid a wage for their work. All three produce copyrighted content for corporations (some call them creative workers), but none-of-which are required to sell anything to put food on their tables.
In the recording industry, there is a parallel: session musicians. A session musician is paid an hourly rate to record music. As part of their contract, they may negotiate a royalty rate for the sale or performance of their recording. However, these contracts do not subvert the basic idea that workers should be paid for their labor.
In America, there are labor laws that are designed so that workers are compensated for their work. Everyone in the recording industry from janitors to A&R staff and secretaries to label executives is paid a wage except recording artists (of course janitors and secretaries are not paid nearly enough). In other words, the creators of the record labels’ commodities are the only ones who receive no guarantee that they will make a wage.
The reason for the artificial distinction between recording artists and other industry workers is a romantic notion about the labor of artisans and craftspeople. Under this logic, recording artists own their work, and garner autonomy in the creation of their music. However, this autonomy is merely a dream today (and likely has always been a dream) for two reasons. First, labels and producers micromanage the production of music by recording artists. Second, songwriters often write the songs that recording artists perform – the recording artist is only a performer (or we could think of them as unpaid session musicians).
When we debate the merits of the “Fair Pay, Fair Play Act of 2015” and updates to the copyright law, we (American society) assume that the only way to provide money to musicians is through the copyright system. However, we need a “Fair Pay for Musicians Act,” which stipulates that musicians receive a living wage for their work.
It is time to reimagine the labor of producing music. We need to move to a model that pays all musicians for their work. One approach, recording artists could be paid a wage for producing music, showing up at promotional events (radio interviews, showcases, Grammys performances, etc.), and other work for their labels in the form of a salary; at the same time, they can be compensated through royalties for the sale and performance of their work. This would be an incremental approach, which maintains the copyright system while asserting the value of labor laws. A more radical approach has been proposed by Dean Baker to abolish copyright altogether. Baker’s plan would involve creating a public fund through which to pay musicians. While I am a big fan of this approach, it could be more than most are willing to cede.
Whatever system we devise, it must take into account that musicians are workers. The current system must change because no musician deserves to starve.