In my travels around the web in the last week, a couple of things have come to light that I thought were worth talking about. The first is about a lawsuit that gives us an inside glimpse into part of the music industry that I don’t think is talked enough, if at all. And the second has to do with the attitude about the music industry from a more general public perspective. In the end, I realized that there is a perception of artists in contractual servitude that has value.
The idea that musicians, artists, writers, etc. need to be beholden to the corporate machine that was built back when technology started enabling greater communication is something I have written about at length (see: Music, Money and the Internet). I pointed out that with the advanced of technology there are now a lot of routes that artists can chose to use to release their works, get funding, etc.
However, many artists still feel the need to become part of the industry. And, in some cases it leads to situations that they didn’t foresee, such as the case for American Idol winner Phillip Phillips:
Honestly, I don’t know a damn thing about Phillips. I’ve never heard a song from him (that I know of), and I never saw an episode of ‘American Idol’ that he was on. But I always wondered about that show. I do know from another season the winner was definitely less talented than the runner-up. How much less talented? Well, who remembers Adam Lambert? Well, yeah, he lost to — now what was his name??? But Adam seems to have been doing well with his Vegas gigs and fronting Queen.
When I first saw the headline, I thought “Oh, here’s another cry-baby of the industry trying to have his cake and eat it too…” And there are parts of the story that do sound like that, for example:
Similarly, Phillips says he performed at a corporate event for an insurance company — only it was labeled an endorsement deal. Raising a problem with this gig, he says 19 took the position that it was subject to the Merchandise Agreement, with a 40 percent commission.
Oh, boohoo – I only got 60 percent instead of the 80 percent I was expecting. But as I read the story, I started to see the other side of things, and started to see some parts that aren’t ever brought to light. The kinds of things that I think all would-be artists should be aware of before entering into one of these contracts.
Part of Phillip Phillips story that serves as an example of this is in the details of the filing. Such as the stories of the obligations that you don’t hear about from the winners of these competitions. For example:
While some of these gigs boosted Phillips’ profile and are arguably in his interest, some other appearances by the singer may have done little to boost his career. For example, the petition says he did a live show without compensation promoting JetBlue in 2013.
So performing free gigs for companies that could easily pay for a personal appearance is part of the deal? Phillips didn’t know that it was part of the expectations. The fact that Phillips was obligated to perform at this even wasn’t to his benefit, rather it was for the benefit of 19 Entertainment. In essence, it sounds to me like it’s a contractual form of servitude.
But there are still more examples:
The petition also chronicles other indignities that Phillips has faced in the past couple of years. He says that 19 lined up a producer for his first two albums that compromised his interests. He says 19 lied to him, saying that the producer wouldn’t receive greater mechanical royalty rates than he would. He adds that 19 has repeatedly withheld information regarding his career, including the title of his Behind the Light album released last year.
And still people line up to be part of these competitions? They want to win these shows? Why? Are we seriously that bad off that we have become a nation, actually a world really, in which artists are willing to sell themselves and their art into this kind of servitude?
Well, I guess it’s not hard to imagine when the average person can barely get a job that pays a reasonable wage to be self-sufficient. The industry have built up this shining reputation with so many people that it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. And, despite all that independent artists trying to shatter the illusions of the industry, it seems there are still people that aren’t getting it. They are missing the point so much that they produce snotty articles that reflect poorly on organizations that try to present themselves as professional:
This essay does, in effect, have a point to make regarding the notability guidelines for Wikipedia. And, there is a legitimate aspect to it at it’s core: Wikipedia isn’t really a place for the promotion of the obscure or unknown artist, band, etc.
However, a number of the points made in the article would set back the cause of the independent musician by decades if they were to be the standard by which all articles were judged. For example:
You only exist on Facebook, Myspace, YouTube, Twitter, iTunes, Bandcamp and/or Soundcloud.
Many independent artists only “exist” through these venues. We’ve moved past the time when these avenues were secondary to the major labels. In fact, there are portions of the public that have made these, especially iTunes, SoundCloud and Bandcamp their first stop for all of their music.
You’ve never put out a “real” album: Putting out a real album means having the album released by a record company, or at least put into wide distribution by an independent label.
No, no, no… This should not be any measure of artistic value! The idea that someone needs to sell themselves into artistic servitude to meet someone else opinion of what has value is complete and utter bullshit. And, honestly, is this were the measure, then Wikipedia has no value as it has never been printed in a book. A real book. A book that is distributed by a publisher.
Your band is not signed: Likewise, if your band is not signed by a record company or independent label, or, as mentioned above, the article mentions a fake recording company or independent label, then no one cares.
Again, every bit as incorrect as the “real album” concept. Actually, there are people in the world that care more about artists who remain un-signed than give two shits about Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Drake, Sam Smith, Weird Al, or Daft Punk. Here are some artists that ave done very well for themselves without being signed: Ben Sucks, Professor Kliq, Spiedkiks, Amanda Palmer, just to name a few. So no, signing a contract is not a sign of notability.
You are not making any money: Whether it’s because you’re just jamming with your friends instead of actually being a band or simply because no one will pay money to hear your music, if your band is not making any money, we do not want to hear about it on Wikipedia.
Well, that kills about ninety percent of the music industry then, Most musicians aren’t making money if they aren’t one of the top acts in the world. This has been pretty well documented by the likes of Steve Albini and Alan McGee. And then there is this: RIAA Accounting: Why Even Major Label Musicians Rarely Make Money From Album Sales.
So just stop with this horseshit about making money. It doesn’t happen in a large portion of the industry. (Too large a portion of the industry in my opinion, but that’s another story.) In fact, many of the un-signed, BandCamp and SoundCloud based artists have probably made as much or more than signed artists.
Conclusion: Artists In Contractual Servitude
It’s disappointing to see this attitude on display in a publication that seeks to be world’s source for accurate, factual information. This is the kind of bias that has stifled art and creativity for the past several decades.
In fact, it’s this perception of how the artistic world is supposed to be that allows companies like 19 Entertainment to get away with contracts that put artists in contractual servitude. Have we learned nothing from the history of this country? Have we learned nothing from slavery and the American Civil War? Are we just supposed to accept the idea that artists of all stripes might become the next class of citizens being pushed into a form of slavery?
I won’t settle for it. I will put all my abilities behind the creative, independent musician that is standing up against the industry that built itself on the back of Copyright laws and use them with contracts as a way to steal the works of the artists from them, and place them in servitude. I will fight for the right of the artist to be see as someone that is important outside of being in such an industry.