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Warner vs James Taylor – Everything Is Broken

September 20th, 2012 | 5 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies |

Blimey, where do we start with this one?

Right, this is a LONG post. You’re going to need a soundtrack. If you haven’t got anything playing already, try this – it’s lovely:

Onwards – heres a #Protip for Warners, and ever other major label: if you’re going to take the moral high-ground and claim that file-sharing screws your artists out of money and people shouldn’t be downloading the music you’ve released over the years for free or sharing it with their friends, because those works are the livelihood of those artists and they need to be paid for it etc. etc etc… it REALLY helps your case if you’re not habitually shitting on them and doing everything in your power to not pay them.

Have a read of this article about James Taylor (the singer/songwriter, not the organ-funkster) and his legal wrestling with his label:

http://www.digitalmusicnews.com/permalink/2012/120919jamestaylor

Now, remember, this is James Taylor. He’s one of the seriously big “success” stories. He had a pretty epic drug problem in the 70s (which no doubt made him far less likely to request an audit of his financial dealings with his label then), but he’s been clean for almost 30 years (I gather) and will have had a pretty solid expert legal team for all of that time. And he, by all accounts, has been screwed out of millions. MILLIONS. That’s a whole lot of change that fell down the back of the couch.

Now, both sides of this are a mess – the argument over whether royalty rates on digital releases should be calculated as sales or licenses is a bit of a red-herring. I mean, it has massive financial implications for both sides, but the fact that there’s some huge discrepancy between the two figures, despite EXACTLY the same amount of money being paid by the customer, and the same infrastructural costs being involved in delivery, we’re talking about twisted legal machinations designed to NOT PAY ARTISTS.

The record industry – the major label end of it, is in the business of not paying artists. It’s what they do. They pay what they have to, what they’re likely to get caught out not doing, and what pragmatically they have to pay in order to keep the seriously bankable artists on side. It’s why every single industry talk you ever go to advises you to keep as much of your publishing as possible, and get involved in songwriting as soon as possible. Because that has fixed royalty rates that get paid no matter what.

At least, they do on recordings. Broadcast fees are just as corrupt – so businesses across the US that broadcast music have to pay a license to ASCAP for the rights to the music, but the actual distribution of the money is (or at least was, last time I read up on it) distributed to the ‘top 200 grossing US tours of the year’. So you happen to run a cafe that plays jazz all day long? Tough, every penny of that ASCAP fee is being split between a handful of artists on heavy rotation on local TV. The Elton Johns, Celine Dions and Mariah Careys of this world. And there’s no opt out.

The UK is in a slightly better position, in that the PRS do a marginally better job of collecting data, and are also occasionally open to approach about unpaid performance royalties. They also collect a percentage of ticket sales at gigs and distribute that to the writers of the music performed. Brilliant if someone has a hit with a song of yours, or if you’re a support act playing your own music to thousands of people a night but only being paid £50 (or worse, having bought your way onto the tour). On balance, the UK system needs improving, and has a few fairly epic flaws, but is at least fixable. The US system is pure corruption. A protection racket on behalf of the people at the top. And their legal teams.

Because, of course, every time this shit ends up in court – whether between artists and labels or between collection agencies and anyone with the balls to take them on, it’s lawyers that win. They get paid no matter what. And all the money that pays them, at some point originates in the written and recorded music of those artists they’re representing.

So, the next time you read about a label – or their corporate lobbyists, the BPI/RIAA -talking about the ‘evils of file sharing’ (or as they more commonly call it ‘Piracy’, ‘audiocide’ having been ruled out as only slightly too hyperbolic) Consider what they themselves could do to improve the lot of the artists they claim to be on the side of, to represent, to support.

Just for clarity, this isn’t an ‘everything should be free’ post. It’s not a clarion call for the wonders of Torrenting. The people who are making millions off the advertising on torrent traffic search engines are for the most part as pernicious and mendacious as the labels themselves. Opportunists who saw a gaping chasm between ‘the way people find and share music’ and ‘the financial mechanisms required to keep the massively expensive infrastructure of the recorded music industry from eating itself’. And instead of looking for a discovery mechanism as distributed as the file-sharing itself, they built search portals that they could cover in dubious ads to make millions from. Way to go sticking it to The Man…

Torrenting is, at best, a workaround for the most useless bits of current copyright legislation and a fantastically efficient large file delivery mechanism. At its worst, it’s the consequence of an industry losing any moral/ethical/practical claim to be representing the best interests of the artists whose work they package, distribute and sell.

It’s not like it’s not possible to build better delivery options – a large part of the success of Bandcamp, for me, is that it’s a BETTER mechanism than torrents:

  • It’s easier to share URLs,
  • easier to find (assuming it’s on there, the bandcamp page is often incorporated into the artist’s site, because it’s so easy to do),
  • easier to trust (pretty much zero chance that the files will be corrupted/wrong)
  • and chock full of artwork and metadata of the kind you can’t get on iTunes or Amazon.

If you’re in a position to talk to your audience about the broader meaning of ‘value’, then there are many friendlier ways of sorting out getting paid for your music and its physical renderings than putting it behind a paywall, offering people one minute previews and in so doing setting up Torrents as the obvious alternative the moment you lose the moral argument for ‘not torrenting’.

So what did the labels back as their response to this? Spotify.

Epic Fail.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can take a leaf out of JT’s lyrical note book. What’s the best way to think about the value exchange for music? Let’s try the chorus of Shower The People for starters:

‘Shower the people you love with love,
show them the way that you feel
things are gonna work out fine
if you only will’

Artists, make the best music you possibly can.

Audiences, be demonstrably grateful for it.

The more of that kind of transaction that happens, the greater the pressure on the majors to catch up. After all, the more success there is for artists in the gratitude economy, the harder it will be for the majors to tempt people with their heinous, fame-fetishizing, financially disastrous, bullshit record contracts and the legal wrangling the inevitably follows when 9/10 albums fail to recoup and even the ‘winners’ find themselves being ripped off to the tune of whatever-the-shitheads-at-the-label-can-get-away-with.

None of this is easy to grasp. The legacy of the last 50 years of the 20th century hangs heavy over every thought we have relating to ‘success’. The mythologies and promises of the record label age were repeated to us daily, relentlessly, from every imaginable avenue. That’s a tough shadow to extricate ourselves from. All the language we have to describe pretty much everything we do is inherited from that age. We talk about disintermediation as though we’re going to rebuild the 20th century record industry just without labels. And that’s bollocks.

So here’s an ad hoc manifesto for where we go now:

  • We need to throw it all up in the air and start again.
  • We need new ways of finding music that don’t presuppose that ‘media coverage’ is the best measure of quality
  • We need a culture of sharing – sharing links, sharing info, sharing recommendations and sharing music – all designed to help artists find an audience without spending more on promo than they make on sales, and to help listeners discover music without ever ending up paying for music they don’t like.
  • We all need to get better at story telling. ‘Hey buy my shit, it cost me loads to make this record’ is not an interesting story. Nor is ‘listen to this, it was on X-Factor last week’. Music means most when it’s wrapped in a narrative tale. That of the artist, or the genesis of the work itself or a fictional tale that the music soundtracks. Tell better stories.
  • We need more and more artists to stop pretending that this ‘internet thing’ is what they’re doing until they get signed. The longer we go on thinking like that, the less likely it is that the good people from the old industry will start to build the Useful Services Of The Future
  • We need to stop treating music-making as a start-up with an all-encompassing profit-motive and get back to a deeper conversation about the purpose of art.
  • We need to claw back the conversation from the ‘evil freetards vs evil labels’ crowd and start to talk about the value of sustainability to the listener as much as to the artist.
  • We need to commit to investing time, money and attention in art, because without it, our humanity is diminished. Not just music but all artistic expression. When art is assumed to be funded by ads or sponsors and therefor always free to the end-user, we lose something deeply valuable to our humanity – the capacity of artists to freely interpret the world around us and reflect it back at us as beautiful and full of possibility. It’s tough to trust a mirror with the words ‘sponsored by BP’ along the bottom.

Love art, love people, and stop pretending that our purpose in life is to see just how much we can get away with. It’s not a competition that we’re trying to win. That’s a mistake made by the corporate fuckwits trying to rip off James Taylor and the Torrenting fools downloading every song they can think of ‘just because they can’. Everyone loses.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Ben Walker

    YESYESYESYESYESYESYES.

    All of those points make me want to eat my own legs off in frustration then spin forever on my buttocks in a neverending dance of joy at the new world we will create.

    Starting again without all the hangups and myths is almost impossible, and that’s why we should aim for it. Before making a decision about my music, I will sit for 8 hours in a silent field asking myself “Why?” over and over again like a 4-year-old until I have reached the fundamental truth of my motivation. At the moment I’m only working at about 2 whys below mind-level. Deep diving required.

  • Jennifer

    We need to throw it all up in the air and start again.

    Well not really, because as you say, Bandcamp is on the right track. That doesn’t need throwing up in the air :-)

  • Tim Hall

    A few weeks ago, someone quoted rock club owner saying “Most of the bands that play here are too good to be commercially successful”.

    I find that a terrible indictment of the current state of the music business.

  • If They Can Stuff It to James Taylor, What Chance for the Rest of Us? « Bitten by the Biz

    […] Steve Lawson’s take on the article suggests strategies and practices, for musicians wanting to keep control of their creations or at least get paid. […]

  • Keith

    If James Taylor gets ripped off, not much hope for everyone else.

    We will only move forward when artists recognise that X Factor and a record label are not something to aim for, and actually focus of producing good music.

    How big record labels rip off artists