If you listen to music, make music, occasionally download some mp3s or even if you’re generally interested in the whole RIAA fostered argument that downloads hurt bands, this is something you absolutely HAVE to read.
It’s written by a guy called Steve Albini, who amongst other things got the production/engineering credits on Nirvana’s In Utero, and is the mainstay of one of the greatest noise/math rock bands ever, Shellac.
The article is fairly dated, and was written at a time when obviously downloads, well, didn’t really exist. So that’s a caveat, and though it consequently doesn’t (can’t, really) discuss the internet and mp3s and all, it provides considerable insight into the workings of the music industry, while simultaneously exposing substantive flaws in their “music hurts artists” narrative.
These A & R guys are not allowed to write contracts. What they do is present the band with a letter of intent, or “deal memo,” which loosely states some terms, and affirms that the band will sign with the label once a contract has been agreed on. The spookiest thing about this harmless sounding little memo, is that it is, for all legal purposes, a binding document. That is, once the band signs it, they are under obligation to conclude a deal with the label. If the label presents them with a contract that the band don’t want to sign, all the label has to do is wait. There are a hundred other bands willing to sign the exact same contract, so the label is in a position of strength. These letters never have any terms of expiration, so the band remain bound by the deal memo until a contract is signed, no matter how long that takes. The band cannot sign to another laborer or even put out its own material unless they are released from their agreement, which never happens. Make no mistake about it: once a band has signed a letter of intent, they will either eventually sign a contract that suits the label or they will be destroyed
This practice still reigns true today, though some bands are able to circumvent it by ‘leaking’ stuff. Regardless, this astonishingly predatory manouevre is still in use. It also tends to put into perspective industry bullshit about downloads and all, primarily because it puts bands out at the forefront, and with massive internet backing they themselves then possess some leeway when it comes to negotiations.
If you read the article, near the bottom are some figures (approximate, and naturally they’re for the early 90s), and that’s when it hits you just how hard it is for a band that’s starting out. It hits you just how predatory the music industry, and how profit oriented music labels are. It hits you then why these guys will pay abortions like Mika and Nickleback buttloads of money, purely because of the money they can earn off a couple hundred thousand albums sold. It hits you why there’s such a superfluity of music that is so obviously trendy and made for being devoured quickly.
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) says that global government legislation is essential to the sector’s survival.
It cited Spain as an example of a country which does not have laws in place to prevent illegal downloads.
The sales of albums by local artists there have fallen by 65% in five years.
Federation chairman John Kennedy said the situation in Spain is now “almost irreversible”.
“Spain runs the risk of turning into a cultural desert,” commented Rob Wells, Senior Vice President, Digital, at Universal Music Group.
In the UK the IFPI said it was supportive of the proposed Digital Economy Bill, which includes legislation to cut off persistent file sharers.
“If there is a risk of kids losing their internet connection, they will stop,” said Mr Kennedy.
He described the loss of the recent court case against BitTorrent website Oink as “a terrible disappointment” and an indication that current laws in the UK are “out of touch with where life is”.
See? All of a sudden, the greatest thing since email and all is now being touted as destruction of local culture. Except that this isn’t the case, at all. The internet, with file-sharing, provides the greatest forum for local artistes to use and exploit to their advantage. The Arctic Monkeys are who they are because of the internet; because that’s what afforded them the ability to interact and share music with their fans when they were spotty teenagers. If they’d had to work with the music industry, there’d been a considerable likelihood of their destruction. The same applies for Cold War Kids, Arcade Fire, Menomena, and whole plethora of others bands who were first and foremost internet rock stars before they even signed for a label. Save the big guns, you don’t find many indie and local artists having a whinge about downloads (they do, and perhaps rightfully so, have a go at people who leak albums). That’s because they’re aware that people downloading albums takes money out of the industry’s hands, and not out of their pockets.
This is where some understanding of record contracts comes in. Now bear with me, cause my comprehension of contracts isn’t perfect, but this is something I’m fairly certain about. Royalties (the money you get paid everytime someone plays your music on the radio/tv or buys your CD) tend to be a percentage of the retail price of a CD. So if your album (in CD format) is priced at $10, and your royalty rate is 10% you’ll get $1 everytime someone buys the CD. But here’s the catch – initially royalties are part of the label’s recoupment. Now when you sign for a label, they tend to give you an advance as well as foot the bill for an album (instrument rental fees, producer’s fees, recording studio fees, etc). This money is what recoupment entails. So, e.g if all these costs come down to $250,000, that’s the money the label will recoup out of your royalties. In order then, for you to see the FIRST royalty cheque, you’ll have to sell 250,000 records. Do you want to take a guess at how many bands exactly achieve this number? Well I will – very few. This is why a fair amount of bands aren’t too anal about file-sharing, because it’s not really their money. Local bands and non-major label bands get most of their money from touring and merchandise, and that’s something that will never die out.
Anyway, downloads aren’t even close to negatively affecting local music, or music as a genre as opposed to an industry. It allows people from all over the world to listen to all sort of music, resulting in a hodgepodge of intelligence music that articulately splices various genres together to create something glorious in itself. It allows a Pakistani kid to take inspiration from someone his age recording ambient music in his room at a midwestern american university. It allows people who simply cannot afford to chuck Rs. 1000 on an album – people who are made to suffer because they listen to something other than what’s available on cds here. It’s a ridiculous thing to punish, but that’s what the music industry wants. It seemingly wants less globalization, primarily I would venture because this is one facet of globalization where capitalism’s having to take a backseat to something more egalitarian.
Meanwhile, musicians now at their tips a broader audience than they could’ve hoped for if they were making music pre-2000. And though there are people who may never be able to buy their merchandise, or see a show (either because of distance or because they’re massive cunts), there are enough who’ll buy their album if they genuinely like it, and who’ll buy a shirt or see the show. File-sharing allows for more people to listen to a greater variety of music, and consequently make greater music, and it allows for those without the financial ability to continue enjoying one of the greatest things about humanity.