Rock stars of the world unite — you have nothing to lose but your contracts.
If artists such as Tom Petty, Courtney Love and Don Henley have their way, musicians may take a cue from autoworkers, teachers and professional athletes by forming their own union.
“I think the artist community has reached a boiling point,” Henley said Thursday (March 29). “In my almost 40 years in this business, I’ve never seen the level of hostility the labels have for artists right now. It borders on contempt.”
Petty, who fought with MCA Records in the 1970s to renegotiate his contract and to keep the list price of his albums down — battles he eventually won, though he filed for bankruptcy in the process — told the Los Angeles Times he thinks it’s about time musicians organize to fight for their rights.
Last year, Henley helped found the Recording Artists Coalition, which successfully fought to overturn a controversial “work for hire” provision in a recent amendment to the Copyright Act of 1976. The provision would have prevented artists from ever reclaiming the rights to their recordings, though some superstars, such as Bruce Springsteen and Sting, have been able to negotiate ownership. Now, they can reclaim those works after 35 years.
Artists Need A Trade Group
Henley said that while he’s not sure a union is necessary, artists need a trade group, “just as the labels have the RIAA to represent their interests.”
The coalition — which Henley said has approximately 57 members, including Sheryl Crow, Springsteen and Billy Joel — is planning several benefit concerts to raise money to hire a fulltime lobbyist and administrator to have a “continuing presence” in Washington.
Love, who is suing Universal Music Group to get out of her contract with its subsidiary Geffen, has also come out in support of a musicians’ union. Currently, vocalists are members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, while non-singing musicians and session players can join the American Federation of Musicians, Love said in an e-mail she sent out to other artists asking for support.
“Record companies like this system because neither union represents all artists,” Love said, adding that artists need a single union to represent their concerns.
“It’s a good thing for artists to be more aware,” said Serj Tankian, singer of System of a Down. “[Getting signed to a major label] is a bewildering process to start with. You don’t even know half the things that are happening, even when you ask.”
Love Plans To Lobby
Love added that artists shouldn’t be tied to long-term contracts that keep them with labels that don’t pay them a fair share of the profits. She plans to join Henley in lobbying for legislation that would prevent artists from being tied to a company for more than seven years.
California is the only state with such a law, but record labels are excluded. Most contracts specify a certain number of albums rather than a set period of time, and Universal originally sued Love because Hole only delivered two albums of their five-album contract.
“Major deals shouldn’t be so long term,” Tankian said. “They should be three records, or something like that, instead of six records — not just for the artist’s sake, but for music’s sake.”
Labels Take On Financial Risk
Unidentified music executives told the Times that long-term contracts are necessary, because the labels take on the financial risk of paying for albums in a market where only five percent of releases make money.
“It would be a lot better if labels would focus on artist development,” Tankian said.
R&B legend Sam Moore of Sam & Dave fame agreed that musicians need a union to help obtain health and pension benefits, the article said. Along with other R&B stars, Moore is embroiled in a legal battle with AFTRA to recover unpaid pension funds.
Henley will appear on behalf of the coalition before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on digital copyrights April 3, where he plans to talk about the importance of coming up with a fair system for collecting Internet performance rights for artists.
Last year, the RIAA, which represents the labels, established Sound Exchange to collect royalties. “[That] looks like a perfect example of the fox guarding the chicken coop,” Henley said, adding that the coalition will lobby for an independent royalty-collection agency, which he said might require government intervention.
Despite his harsh words for the RIAA, Henley said artists aren’t always in conflict with the labels. “Sometimes our interests work together, as in the issue of internet piracy,” Henley said.
“Sometimes, they’re in conflict, as in the collection of internet royalties,” he continued, adding that the United States is the only country “in the free world” that doesn’t have performance rights in addition to publishing rights. “If you’re just a singer and not a writer, you don’t make anything when they play your song on the radio,” he said, adding, “This is about economic justice across the board. We’re simply asking for fair compensation for our creative work.”