Obsolete Ignorance

One of the things I’m most bothered by in every discussion about the music industry is the way some people are too quick to justify violating copyright law because the industry is ripping off the musicians. I don’t dispute many musicians are probably under-compensated for their efforts while laboring under contract with a major record label, but what they receive as compensation for their efforts has nothing to do with violating the law. My problem with this theory is two parts.

First, just because the industry may or may not be doing something wrong doesn’t make it okay to something else currently held to be wrong in the eyes of several legal systems around the globe. Vote with your wallet and spend the money you would use for CDs on live music; bands are more fairly compensated at live shows. Only purchase music from musicians who aren’t under contract with a major label. Does anyone really *need* the music produced by a major label artist? If there’s a problem with the system, the system probably needs to be changed via some legal means.

My other problem with this argument is the signatures on the contract. The guys in the band who are supposedly slaving for the suits did put their signatures on the contract, right? Doesn’t a signed contract mean they agreed to the terms, no matter how one-sided those terms may appear down the road? If I take a job for $25000 per year and my skills have a market value of $50000 per year, am I getting ripped off because I agreed to perform a job for less than my market value? It could be argued I made a bad decision, but no one is going to agree my employer is ripping me off. I didn’t have to take the job.

How is this different in the music industry? Or the publishing industry? Or any industry taking a risk on creative talents? Those poor souls who signed the band side of the contract didn’t know any better? They were young and foolish? These are excuses, nothing more. If I sign a business contract and don’t review it carefully, when I later discover the terms aren’t to my liking can I claim ignorance?

Bands have options. Self-producing an album, going on tour, and holding out for better terms may not be as glamorous, but the payoff may be bigger long term. Plenty of musicians go this route and are far more likely to have something in their pocket at the end of the day. Many musicians earn a respectable wage without ever signing their name to a contract with any label.

Quite frankly, the sooner bands realize the record label as we know it is obsolete, the better their bargaining position will become. They may not be on terrestrial radio, but satellite and Internet radio are slowly capturing more listeners and aren’t programmed by two or three key individuals. There are still advantages to major label affiliation. Musicians have better access to product positioning in stores, PR opportunities, and key appearances in high profile events like award shows by being on a major label. Major label bands get songs added to console game and movie soundtracks. The little guy doesn’t have a negotiator for these kinds of opportunities. Not yet anyway.

Until bands figure out they are running a business and start handling negotiations in a business-like manner, they will continue to get “ripped off.” Who is really to blame for the poor choices made by musicians?


  1. You’re dead on when you say that musicians have only themselves to blame when they get roped into a lousy contract. However, the attitude of “I’m getting screwed by my employer” is the status quo throughout America. How many friends do you hear complaining about low pay & crappy jobs? My response is always two-fold: “You agreed to the salary when you took the job” & “If you don’t like the job then work someplace else”. Yeah, work can suck and life can suck; do something to make it better or shut up.
    A couple notes about satellite radio…
    I know it’s not hip to defend commercial terrestrial radio because “the corporations control everything and a handful of people program every radio station in the country”… but that simply isn’t true. In the past few years, the general public has suddenly awakened and realized that they hear a lot of the same songs on radio stations up and down the dial. What the dozing masses fail to remember is that the concept of “Top 40” (playing the 40 most popular songs repeatedly) is a format that has existed in the pop realm for nearly 50 years. That formula was applied to the adult contemporary format in the 70’s, country and rock in the 80s and alternative in the 90s.
    The concept of a “radio consultant”… a supposedly learned programmer who told stations what to play… began in the 60s and consumed radio in the 70s and 80s. Today’s corporate-level programmers are simply in-house consultants rather than out-sourced hired guns. Granted, the corporate suits have access to a greater number of stations than the consultants of 20 years ago but the concept is exactly the same.
    In other words, cookie-cutter radio formats have existed for a long long time. The rise of corporate radio has exacerbated the situation but, until the public stops listening to “Top 40 formats” (be it pop or country or rock), you can’t blame radio stations for trying to make money.
    In fact, there seems to be a direct parallel between people who constantly and loudly complain “commercial radio sucks” and those musicians who complain “my record label is screwing me”. If you don’t like the situation, get out of it: get out of the job, turn off the radio station. Don’t buy products from the record label, don’t buy the products from the station advertisers.
    And despite the common belief that all corporate radio stations are programmed by 5 people, many (in fact most) local stations have local control. The corporate suits may put the squeeze on you to play “the right song” but a GOOD local programmer knows his audience & his competition and his market… and the suits defer to the local programmer.
    Satellite radio, on the other hand, IS programmed by a handful of people. When you have a radio station that can reach 80% of the face of the earth… with a potential audience of billions… and that radio station is programmed by ONE person (as is the case with each satellite station)…well, a 50K watt corporate radio station in the middle of Iowa doesn’t seem quite as Orwellian by comparison.
    (From a former corporate radio program director who got out a year ago because he was getting screwed)

  2. I agree with some of the things that you have pointed out and strongly disagree with most of them.
    First, the music “industry?”. Musicic is not industrial. The corporate mentality has all but destroyed this great nation. They are crying about lost revenue, because they did not have the forsight to get into the new age of the internet, and are trying to sue there way back into power. The fact is that musicians are selling there own music via the internet and the recording instustry is seeing there revenue slowly slip away while they become obsolete.
    Second, music is dead. How many time have you heard the same ole same ole by another copycat. There is not much creativity left. Most artists are strugling to find something new. There is something coming and we can all feel it. A new star is on the whore risen. Hip Hop, Rap and Metal have had their 15 min. of fame.
    My question to you is what next.

  3. Jake-
    Does the fact that the music business has consistently paid slave wages,charged musicians for every expense including the number of tissues the Boss used while crying to them when he tells them “Your 15 minutes are up”,continues to lie about royalties that should have been paid 50 years ago nevertheless the insane garbage that an artist has to go through to hope that Soundexchange (aka RIAA) will someday actually pay out a penny or two justify breaking the law? Probably not. But,until we have 24 hour tv channels showing “Legendary Welds of Europe” or “Great American Concrete” or “Circuitboards of the Rich & Famous”,I will not equate 4 or5 people who want to play their music with your “Bad choice,Chumps” model. NOW,Musicians have options-ten,twenty,fifty,eighty years ago these options didn’t exist. Read the history,Jake.
    Love & Peace.

  4. Hmmm. Here’s the thing. You’re assuming that recorded music should have no value because you’ve figured out how to steal it. Maybe the “new income” for budding artists should be to get their files traded, and tracked so they can bring in the big lawyers to sue individuals sharing their files. It could be like a cottage industry. Even if you could only milk 5 figures from each person, you could make a decent living-even after the lawyers take their cut. 😉
    Sure the artists make more of live performance. Neither here nor there. I could argue they should make nothing off that and everything off album sales. Would that make me any less right? The concert thing is only true now BECAUSE of the record companies. Take them out of the picture, and all but the largest draws will make more off the sale of CDs.
    I’ve yet to hear an artist that hasn’t been on a major that I thought should be. Unless they were there and didn’t meet the success benchmarks for the industry and were dropped. Plenty of those.
    See the whole devaluing of recorded music irks me BECAUSE of the power of the internet. Finally aritsts are on more of a level playing field. Or more accurrately will be…yet you’re arguing we should strip them of one of the major sources of income from the music making process-before they even have the power to sell it.
    You want the “majors” gone…what kind of filter gets put up in it’s place? I’ve never found squat on cesspools like mp3.com that was worth listening to-and I’m patient with relatively broad taste. You think people who buy very little music are going to now spend hours upon hours listening to oddly edited, low fi 30 second clips of things in order to find something they like to listen to? Only to then get it for free, go to the website and find out what plane they’ll have to get on to go see the show to “support the artist”? Maybe we could get the airline industry involved. Or maybe they could just sign up for the artists mailing list to get more spam…in order to let them know that someone in PoDunk, Idaho wants to see a concert. Eventually, maybe it will make sense to make it out there. Will they still want to see you? I’m gonna go with them saying, “Who?”, or already having unsubscribed to the mailing list.
    I’m all for a changing of the guard in the industry…but, it can’t be a free for all. The people that will hurt are the musicians and the real music fans. The conglomerates that own the majors will write it off as a business loss, and move on to sell more beer and reality TV. They’re just a business.
    As to the artist’s responsibility for their “position”…that’s a nice theory. But, you don’t really have anything to back it up. You make reference to “Many musicians earn a respectable wage without ever signing their name to a contract with any label”. I’m gonna assume you know more of them than me…feel free to email me some of their addresses/links. I don’t see it. Particualrly if you exclude those studio musicians/producers/engineers/writers whose jobs are a direct result of such major label deals. Sure, they’re not “signed”, but their jobs depend on the “fools” who are.
    Go ahead. Empower me. I want it more than you know.
    As a side note: to Mr Richard…people agree to the salary because they had no real choice. The other choice was to let your children starve. Or lose their house. “Yeah work can suck and life can suck; do something to make it better or shut up.” Very enlightened. Would you be 12 years old, or a Republican?

  5. Jamie Lang wrote: “to Mr Richard…people agree to the salary because they had no real choice. The other choice was to let your children starve. Or lose their house. ‘Yeah work can suck and life can suck; do something to make it better or shut up.’ Very enlightened. Would you be 12 years old, or a Republican?”
    You giggled yourself to sleep after writing that, didn’t you? Because…you’re one of the whiners. “I HAD to take the overnight job at Kwiki Mart because ‘the man’ wouldn’t give me a high-paying job sitting on my ass. It’s just another example of how Corporate America makes my life hell every day.”
    Most of the whiners stuck in crap jobs aren’t trying to support 3 adopted Serbian kids, an invalid mother and a $200,000 home loan. Rather, they’re low-skilled suburbanites who sloughed through high school, got some meaningless college degree, ran up 10K of credit card debt, and drive an over-priced car they couldn’t afford in the first place. Rather than looking at what THEY can do for THEMSELVES (more education, a better work ethic, accurately assessing their job market worth), they complain loudly to their bumbling co-workers that “Jim got that promotion and I didn’t because he’s such a brown-noser.”
    Me? I had a successful 20-year career in radio (with a 4-year degree in broadcasting) and left my comfort zone because I hated what radio had become. I didn’t whine, I didn’t blame others; I saw my future and it was someplace other than radio. So now I’m an entry-level computer tech who knows nothing about computers, struggling every day to learn what the 22-year-old IT tech grad knows by heart. It was my choice and I’m glad I made it.
    Oh…and I drive a ’96 Mitsubishi (I saved up enough until I could buy it outright when it was 2-years old)… I share a small apartment because I know I can’t afford a house just yet… and I cut up my credit cards when I was 25.
    And I’m a Democrat who believes you take care of yourself first.

  6. Just one quick comment, Jake. The contracts which are generally referred to are first contracts, which are binding either for a time period or for so many albums. At times record companies will hold to the contract while not allowing musicians to record. THESE could be reasonably regarded as unfair. The musicians who sign often don’t see a choice.
    And this doesn’t justify ripping off record labels, regardless. That they spend pennies producing the medium (cd’s, that is) has nothing to do with anything. There is more to recording than the medium; in fact, a good part of the reason for existence of album labels–companies–is simply advertising, from getting songs played on air to getting interviews on television.
    Ripping off someone who is a rip-off–whether or not any of the above is regarded as relevant to anything–isn’t completing a karmic circle. It’s ripping someone off. Any attempts at justification of stealing are worthless. Nor does the target in such instances ever get hit; the ones in the music industry responsible for policy are basically unreachable. That’s why they can make the decisions.
    Okay, so it wasn’t a quick comment. 8]

  7. Richard. You are funny. Or depressing…whichever way you take that…
    Either way…at what point were you a professional musician? Maybe there’s something you’re not telling us that makes you have any insight into the way the music industry works…?
    Or more likely, you’re figuring there’s no difference in any industry. All free market, right? There’s a difference. That’s my point here. You just gave an example of a non-music related career path/choices. Now apply that to the industry. I don’t think you can. You see where the protagonist(your assumption of me in this case) went wrong, or at least what they could do to get a better job selling/marketing/etc widgets. Now, why don’t you take a look at a 35 year old musician who’s never been able to pull a consistent living as such. What degree should he go for? Who’s ass should he kiss? Is there a work ethic issue? I don’t think so…your third part:
    “accurately assessing their job market worth”
    THAT’s the deal. You know what? By stealing recorded music you are making said musician’s worth even less in an already low dollar market. No?

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