Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Musical Interlude

Last Saturday night, we went to see a new (to us) group at a new (to us) coffehouse in Virginia. The group was GrooveLily, at Jammin' Java in Vienna, VA. Both are highly recommended. GrooveLily's music is sort of in between heavy folk and light rock, with a rather unusual instrumentation (electrified six-string violin, keyboard, and drums). There are samples of their music on their Website; check it out. Jammin' Java has a good (not overpowering) sound system and, wonder of wonders, is smoke free.

There are a number of interesting things here. First, GrooveLily seems to be a typical "non contract" band. They live in an RV and get all their income (such as it is) by touring. The cover was rather high ($12), and they sold T-shirts and their own CDs. They're very good and quite well regarded, but they're not getting rich, by anybody's definition.

The Rest of the Industry

Question is, are the "contract" bands doing any better? The "big guys", of course, are getting rich. NSync are not living in a bus. But how about the guys who haven't "made if" yet, if they ever will? Courtney Love, who should certainly know, has an article in Salon. Basically, the way her numbers come out, the second rank bands are living in buses and making their money (such as it is) by touring and selling T-shirts. They're not getting rich, by anybody's definition. Nobody that I've seen has ever challenged her numbers.

The contract band is broke, but broke on a much higher plane. Their gigs are many times the size, they sell vastly more albums, they make music videos, they rub elbows with bigwigs. But they're still broke.

All the fuss about Napster and its cousins talks about "stealing from the artists". Turns out that the artists aren't getting any money anyway. The Napster settlement seems to have disappeared into the record companies' general funds; the artists haven't seen a cent. The latest agreement with the record companies' own download services gives the musicians about US$0.0024 per download. Over 90% of the money from the download service stays with the record companies. See the article in the NY Times for details.

One thing that Love, et al haven't seemed to notice is that all of the Draconian recording contracts look a lot like employment agreements. The infamous IRS 20 Questions are long gone, but the rules are still in force. They apply to artists just like they apply to everybody else. These rules are what the IRS uses to determine whether a person is an employee or an independent contractor. Note that a clause in a contract saying that a person is not an employee is legally worthless; the IRS determines whether or not a person is "really" an employee. If a person is found to be an employee when he or she has been working as an independent, the company is liable for all back income taxes. In other words, since the person was legally an employee, the employer presumably withheld income tax from their "wages" but just didn't report it. It's a convenient little fiction that keeps the words "tax fraud" from showing up. Therefore, if a musician was found to "really" be an employee, the record company would have to cough up the musician's income tax. All of it, for at least the last three years. The musician could then file for a big tax refund (after all, the company paid it ...)

Copyright? The record companies own it. Rights reverting to the author? Nope. Not in the contract. Royalties? Maybe, maybe not; depends on the contract. Saw a TV interview with Bo Diddley a few weeks back. He's still performing. He'd love to retire, but he signed away rights to all his music to the record companies. Remember, that was back in the Jim Crow era -- he took what he could get. No royalties. Supposedly Howlin' Wolf, Taj Mahal, and all the other great bluesmen are in the same boat.

The Bottom Line

Anyway, the point is, if you want good new music, you ain't gonna hear it on the radio for years, if ever. Go to the clubs and coffehouses. Avoid any place that advertises a DJ; they're all in the pockets of the record companies. If you like a group's sound, buy their CDs. Yeah, a lot of the music is really bad; that's the risk you take. At least, you won't get some prepackaged, slick, bland slop that some clueless record company exec thinks is what people want.

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