It’s hard to rage against the machine.
However, if you’re a well-established name in the music industry, it may have just become easier. This October, a group of British musicians launched the Featured Artists’ Coalition (FAC), a trade group that seeks to protect the rights and profits of artists in the digital age. Citing “unfair practices” and the challenges of a digitalized world, the FAC has begun recruiting artists in support of a campaign already headed by top names, such as Radiohead and Iron Maiden.
The FAC is correct in its assertion that these “Featured Artists” are “responsible for the majority of the income in the music industry,” but saying so implies a significant misunderstanding of the industry as a business. Without the artistry of bands like Travis and The Verve, the mechanics of this corporate machine would need to find income elsewhere, but record labels and other corporate manifestations of the music world cannot just be categorized as parasitic entities.
Signing a band is no small risk; hundreds of thousands of dollars are often at stake and innumerable hours of work are put into promoting a band and trying to make the artists’ dreams come true. There are photographers to hire for press photos, street teams to coordinate, Web sites to design and maintain, not to mention merchandise that must be designed, ordered, organized and sold. Recording sessions must be arranged at studios, venues need drop-in times for arriving artists and publicists must draw upon contacts from around the world in order to ensure that artists are receiving play time on radio stations, garnering press coverage in magazines and seeing promotional efforts from hosting venues.
It would be unfair to characterize record labels simply as greedy businesses resting on precious mountains of media contacts; more often a record label is an extremely hardworking bastion of support, composed of regular people whose aim is to get an artist’s voice heard.
Record labels can provide an important path for artists looking to make a name for themselves, helping to rescue them from indefinite obscurity. Even the big name bands, such as Radiohead, that speak so confidently of their own rights today can rarely boast of a sponsor-free past. Had EMI Music not stood by Radiohead as the band floundered in its early years, it’s possible the British group may have achieved the same level of success that it enjoys today, but the band would have been extremely lucky to do so.
Yet, it’s not true that record labels solely have the artist’s goals in mind and are uninterested in making money. In recent years, labels and other components of the music industry have damaged their image through desperate scrambling in order to reel in lost profits. From suing file-sharers to supporting fatal royalty increases for Internet radio stations, it seems that the corporate side of the music business has done itself much more harm than good.
Ultimately, the FAC’s goals are understandable. In an industry where relations and profits depend heavily on a rapidly changing realm of technology, it is only fair that rights and other legal issues would follow suit. The music industry is a business, yet there is no reason to perpetuate unfair practices; corporations must recognize that technological changes also necessitate transformation on their end.
However, artists must realize that they are working with those who believe in their talents and that gratitude does not need to be left behind along with outdated business practices. A record label pouring money into a band’s work doesn’t mean that the label should control every part of that band’s artistic life. Yet, it also doesn’t give the band the right to turn around and completely attack its source of monetary and labor support over a contract that each member willfully signed.
Today’s musicians should be aware that the music industry is indeed an ever-fluctuating business, and should accept personal responsibility when considering a contract. With the FAC promoting sweeping changes in the industry, that contract soon may hide no secret perils.
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