Artists In Contractual Servitude

Artists In Contractual Servitude


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:

‘American Idol’ Winner Files Lawsuit to Escape ‘Oppressive’ Contracts

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:

Wikipedia: No one cares about your garage band

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.


Posted by George De Bruin


  1. Dudes, thanks for the RT on this article. Means a lot to me.

  2. See also this keynote by Steve Albini (you already mentioned him):|
    this keynote by Steve Albini

    The arguments in the article are typical for the old system. I say: good riddance, be gone with it.

    1. To make it a bit more clear:
      The arguments that a band has to do so-and-so, or that you have to have a record through an established label (because depending on the discussion independent or put out by yourself don’t really count), and so on, are meant to discourage and hold you back, as a band or musician.
      It’s all bogus.
      Netlabels are one way, Bandcamp and other Internet-based methods are another way.
      Recording can be done cheaply and decent for many, many years now (we did it in the early eighties with cassette-decks, which sounded not total crappy), and now there’s distribution-for-free.
      No exciting or interesting music has ever originated from the mainstream anyway IMHO.
      Also note that specifically netlabels originate among people that, at least for a considerable part, didn’t see themselves as ‘real musicians’ according to the old paradigm, namely the demo- and trackerscenes.
      That is to say, those musicians were totally outside of the accepted musical world (the old system so to speak). That is a good thing, and it would be healthy for music in general if more people operate outside of that money-of at least profit-based framework.

      1. Hi Pater,

        Thanks for the comments. You and I are on the same page. I think it is despicable that this attitude towards artists still exists. But, just like anything else, it takes time for these things to change.

        I don’t know that I would say in the eighties artists / bands had the capabilities to turn out recordings that could be equal to or better than a studio, however. A 4 track analog cassette recorder with an 8-12 channel mixer, and a few processing devices wasn’t going to give you the sound of a professionally recorded piece in a studio. But it was still a step up from recording straight to two-channel with a pair of mics.

        But that wasn’t quite the point…in the 80’s the barrier to having a professional sounding recording were still very much in place: the price of the professional grade equipment was well out of reach of most artists. During the 90’s and into the 2000’s those barriers were lowered sufficiently. These days you can go out and put together a 32-track recording system for under $5K and make a professional recording assuming that you have the skills and knowledge. And now with the distribution being mostly digital it’s possible to release a professional recording and get it to a wide-ranging audience without needing to have a physical product.

        The only things that are still issues are (a) attitudes towards self-produced musicians, and (b) the remnants of the industry that are still trying to keep a stranglehold on certain areas of the market.


        1. That’s why I said ‘not total crappy’. Bandrecordings in those days were raw but could be very usable/decent when made on cassette-decks with some thought put into it. Equipment got cheaper and better, I totally agree with that. What is considered ‘a professional recording’ is something I still don’t know, but I see what you mean. Here I think of lots of truly horrible sounding records made during the eighties, especially in the mainstream and rock-like genres.

          Issues (a) en (b) still stand, and are, I think, sides of the same coin.
          The take time and effort to fix. There’s this cultural phenomenon of awe and respect for ‘professionals’ and disdain for ‘amateurs’, which needs to seriously be addressed. That attitude has also lots of serious social and political effects that are totally offtopic here.

          1. Right – as I said, I think we are very much in agreement on this topic. 🙂 I wasn’t really clear about the point about the equipment: there was still a financial barrier to entry in the 1980’s. Even if you could afford something better than an old Tascam and a cheap mixer, you still weren’t as likely to be able to produce top quality recordings. Yes you could produce good ones, but typically they would have been considered lower grade than the “professionally produced” recordings. The sound quality of 80’s recordings did have some issues going on, but there were quite a few factors there, most notably the early shift to digital recording…but that’s another topic altogether.

            FWIW: social, political, economic, legal and cultural topics aren’t out of bounds here as long as they are framed within the topic of the article without stretching the point. (IE – I don’t want to have a free-for-all Obama bashing or something similar. However citing specific policies that have sided with the music industry, or damaged cultural freedom through extending ‘intellectual property’ laws is within bounds.)


  3. I agree with everything , George.

    “Servitude” is a very fitting word. I have also noted that use of “signed” as some kind of mark of existence. It is actually horrible that creators (and consumers/customers/fans/etc) see that to be something you have to have a mark of approval by companies and lawyers. Servitude, indeed.

    The public service radio/television here are among those that repeat this meme of “being signed”. Not rarely followed by applause.

    Artists even often proudly describe themselves as part of “the industry”. Representatives even. Which is not totally wrong, they are basically (small) subcontractors. Small subcontractors to big industry and business often are very vulnerable. Servitude.

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