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"If I don't do this, who can?"
June 8, 2001 2:01 AM   Subscribe

"If I don't do this, who can?" Courtney Love, a unionist? She may be the only one to put the Music Industry to task, and challenge practices that enslave struggling artists, turning shining stars into short-lived comets. That is, provided she doesn't just settle out of court. D'ya think she can do it? Or is this just more smoke & mirrors?
posted by ZachsMind (22 comments total)

 
I've been thinking about her lawsuit and some of her arguments since I first read about it a month or so ago. At first, I thought everything she was saying about long contracts, recording debt, and promotion was spot on. But the more I think about it, the more some of her claims seem unreasonable. Take the idea that bands owe their labels for recording costs. At first glance this seems ridiculous, but on further reflection, is it really that abnormal? If you stop looking at a band's output as "art," and start viewing it as nothing more than any other product, how is the idea of a label's insisting that it be repaid for recording costs any different than any other venture capital investment? The only difference is that, while I suppose the typical VC deal is an equity investment with a defined return upon profitability, the label's deal is fundamentally an equity investment with a front-loaded debt component.

Then take her claim that it is unreasonable for the labels to expect a marketable album every year or two and for the bands to tour in between. This also seems superficially attractive, as how are you supposed to make a quality album if you're always on the road. But look at the record industry in the 60s. Back then, the typical arrangement was for one or even two albums in a year, with touring as well. Look at the release dates for Beatles, Who, Stones, and Kinks albums and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Moreover, her claim that the label she signed with, DGC, no longer exists because it was merged into a larger conglomerate, and therefore her contract is void, is ridiculous. As anyone who knows anything about corporate or contract law knows, the contract is still valid because of the concepts of corporate successor liability and obligation, etc. This seems to me the weakest claim of all.

It appears to me that the crux of her argument is that CA prohibits contracts for more than seven years. I am not familiar with CA laws, so that may be the case, but I wonder if it's only more than seven years because of how long it takes her to put out the number of albums she's under contract for.

I'm not saying that all of Love's claims are even mostly whining (her claims of inadequate promotion seem substantial), but if bands don't want their music treated like product then maybe they shouldn't sign with the major labels. And if bands want to sign with the major labels for the money and the fame, then they should be prepared to have a weak bargaining position until they manage to establish themselves inside the system.
posted by Bezuhin at 2:24 AM on June 8, 2001


My problem with artists that are vocal about being supposedly repressed and whatnot by record companies nowadays is that it's their own fault. When they signed their contract they made the decision to put fame above complete artistic control. If it's a situation of a company actually violating the contract or breaking the law, then it's understandable the artist would be upset. If this has actually happened with Courtney Love, then I think she is justified in taking her label to court. With artists just wanting out of contracts that, after some time with the company, they've decided they don't like, I think they need to deal with it. They put themselves in that position. They signed that contract. Interscope or Virgin or whoever didn't point a gun at them and say "sign this horrible contract so we can do whatever we want with your music." They made a conscious decision to put record company promoted fame above complete control of their music.

And there are other options. Love mentioned Ani DiFranco. Ani DiFranco started her own record company in 1990 to have that complete control. Today there's still a lot of people that haven't heard of her but she has been successful. She does have a pretty devoted fan base. She can sell out venues for her concerts. She even has other artists on her label now. She put her music above fame and dealt with it. I don't see why artists that made the other choice can't deal with their's. I don't see her bitching about people not having heard of her and wishing she chose to have some big record company promote her instead. Even if eventually the artist would like to take more complete control of his/her music later on, assuming the artists know what they're doing, it's possible. As mentioned in the article, some artists sue to renegotiate their contracts. Some change the contract when it ends. U2, for example, gained ownership of all the band's songs after renewing a contract with Island Records. (Which no longer exists, by the way, because of mergers like the ones mentioned in the article. U2 is now on Interscope Records.)
posted by DyRE at 4:05 AM on June 8, 2001


"..My problem with artists that are vocal about being supposedly repressed and whatnot by record companies nowadays is that it's their own fault. When they signed their contract they made the decision to put fame above complete artistic control.."

Starve and keep your principles, or learn the zen of buttkissing and sell your soul down the river. Some choose the starve option. We never hear about them though do we? Actually, I've met some of them. In a way I was one myself once. I put my principles before the almighty dollar, and now I regret never having taken that chance. And there was another time when I was forced to decide walking out right behind a friend who was unfairly fired, or stay there and be able to cash a check at the end of the week. I chose the paycheck over a friendship, and I regret that too. The solution is never to put people in this situation. It's a no-win, especially if you've got no bargaining chips. You don't go up to someone with no money and invite them to play poker. Unless you're a hustler. Either way they can't win.

"..if bands don't want their music treated like product then maybe they shouldn't sign with the major labels."

Record labels catch bands when they're struggling and hungry. They make all these promises and build up what is legal indentured servitude. Admittedly, Prince wouldn't sign that contract with Warner now, knowing what he now knows, but there's a sucker born every minute. If Prince hadn't signed when he was young and trying to break into showbusiness, he would have been passed over.

"If you stop looking at a band's output as "art," and start viewing it as nothing more than any other product, how is the idea of a label's insisting that it be repaid for recording costs any different than any other venture capital investment?"

Agreed, but this is what is killing music. When it stops being art and starts being product, that's when you get crap. The real art of today's music is happening outside the established RIAA artists, but the work doesn't get seen, because there's no money promoting it. Understandably, those with the money want to invest in people who will 'put out' and will telepathically know how high to jump when a big RIAA label holds their cattle prod. It's the difference between selling out and making crap for big bucks, versus untapping the creative flow and listening to your heart, but having opportunities shut down for you. It is the balance between true artistic expression, and giving the consumer what they want. However, is the consumer really the audience, or is it the record label? When Warner owned Prince, his work declined. His efforts stopped bearing fruit. The same has happened repeatedly, to varying degrees, to a lot of artists. Courtney Love wants to see this change, but I don't think she can do it alone, and any musician presently suckling off the corporate teat is not going to stand up to her defense.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:56 AM on June 8, 2001


The problem with the notion of bands having to pay back their 'development' cost are is that the companies seem to pretty much decide what those development costs are going to be. Now, I'll admit that the record companies are in some ways providing a service to the band but at the same time it often seems to me that they provide a very expensive service and on their terms. "In order to promote your album you must do x, y and z, oh, and it'll cost a lot but it's the only way to do it". How many of these hugely expensive videos that you see really need to be that expensive?
posted by mr_stru at 6:36 AM on June 8, 2001


Some background information, from the artists' point of view anyway: Steve Albini's article, "The Problem With Music", and Courtney's speech as reprinted in Salon, "Courtney Love does the math."
posted by RylandDotNet at 6:40 AM on June 8, 2001


I'm glad Courtney Love has found something to keep her name in circulation. The woman sure does know her way around a publicity stunt.
posted by ljromanoff at 6:40 AM on June 8, 2001


This is a needless post, and a fucking stupid inception for a persons artistitic rights. I hate that cow, she should just go away. I wish someone would unleash Tool on her whiny ass. Greatness has a way of showing its face no matter what. she is a no talent fuck-stix and her persona makes me wanna buy a gun. art is a product , a product of labor and love. bitch otta keep her hole shut least the ghost of Robert Johnson comes and set her straight.
posted by clavdivs at 6:55 AM on June 8, 2001


What happened to the dream of the internet? Mondo 2000 had me believing that, by this time, everyone would be Ani DeFranco, and the record industry would crumble like a vampire in the new dawn sun.
posted by dong_resin at 7:03 AM on June 8, 2001


wow clav, you totally proved that we ought not to pay any attention to Courtney.
posted by moz at 7:16 AM on June 8, 2001


Okay, right up front, I used to work for a major label, so this may have a prejudiced tone.

Have you gone into a record store and wondered about all those albums from all those bands you have never heard from? They were all signed by a label that thought it would be profitable and generate a fan base. They all had various amounts of money spent in production and promotion - and the label lost money on the vast majority of them. The artists that make it big actually spend the beginning of their career helping offset costs of the bands that didn't make it big - and I can see where that might generate resentment from artists.

Why do some artists make it and some don't? Of course there are a myriad of reasons, but I was in awe how much radio program directors and MTV had to do in getting a band heard. How many people discover a breaking new artist from hearing a song play over the end credits of a movie, or read an article on a new band if the band doesn't have a degree of success to make the article intersting in the first place? Not many.

I think artists' frustrations (and consumers', as well) should also be aimed at the radio and video outlets. For all the internet talk, those older mediums still have the stranglehold on most careers.
posted by irishcreme at 7:32 AM on June 8, 2001


clivdivs: What, pray tell, does Robert Johnson, Delta blues singer, have to do with this? I've listened to Robert J. and a zillion times and I don't know of any negative references to unions. Also, we don't know his attitude toward record companies, since he died before a second release. The man who recorded him was, however, one Don Law, who went on to produce Johnny Cash's 1960s work. Johnny Cash would most definitely support better treatment of musicians, regardless of what he thinks of Courtney, in fact he long has. And I imagine he and Robert Johnson would hit it off immediately. Getting killed by a jealous lover, supposedly, and under mysterious circumstances, is something I'm sure Johnny and poor Bob would agree is beyond anyone's capacity to prevent.
posted by raysmj at 9:41 AM on June 8, 2001


clavdivs said: This is a needless post, and a fucking stupid inception for a persons artistitic rights. I hate that cow, she should just go away ... she is a no talent fuck-stix and her persona makes me wanna buy a gun ... bitch otta keep her hole shut

Jesus, for a second there, I thought I was reading Free Republic.

Thank you, clavdivs. I'm sure we're all refreshed and challenged by your unique point of view.
posted by RylandDotNet at 10:28 AM on June 8, 2001


you people really reach dont you. i am sorry my words where even wasted on this post. to pay attention to the "love gun" is in itself well, not worth my time. Who said i was constructing an argument, it was a STATEMENT. Johnny Cash is very cool but im not sure him and RJ would have hit it off, well, to the point of a collaberation, and RJ would have been in his prime when johnnie came up and where did RJ and unions even come from, i never drew a comparison? Im a Skip James fan myself. I see the point of artist rip-off, it does need some attention but Love is no Walter Reuther.
posted by clavdivs at 10:45 AM on June 8, 2001


Agreed, but this is what is killing music. When it stops being art and starts being product, that's when you get crap.

Courtney Love has never used the above cliche as an argument. It's more a question of artists and performers rarely seeing any dough at all, even after selling millions of albums. Even the supposedly smart and careful ones often get close to zip. See the Salon article referenced earlier. It's odd, by the way, that Prince has only come up once in this article. And he and Ani DeFranco -- he encourages others to take her route, but doesn't see it as the end-all, be-all -- seem to have this mutual admiration society thing going. Info on his own efforts regarding the issues addressed here are addressed at the now-allegedly non-cursing, platform shoe-wearing funkster's NPG Online. Click on "freedom" at the top, right.

clavdivs: Yes, I was wondering where RJ came from in your post. You can still despise Courtney, go ahead, not a Hole fan meself. But I didn't have any idea where you were coming from. Hostile to her ideas, what? Then comes a reference to Robert Johnson out of nowhere. If it's a decent cause, who cares whether it's Courtney or John Prine (another artist who's done quite well on the independent route) or Merle (who hates the majors probably about three times as much as Courtney and is now signed to a punk label). Hell, if Hanson and Ricky Martin were involved, the issues would still be the same, right?
posted by raysmj at 11:07 AM on June 8, 2001


You guys are zeroing in on the messengers, but you're not listening to the message. I swear. I'm just gonna pack up all my CDs and live on the moon.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:17 AM on June 8, 2001


DiFranco, rather.
posted by raysmj at 11:17 AM on June 8, 2001


ZachsMind: That was more or less my point in the note to clavdivs. What difference does it make who the message comes from? And it's hardly coming from her alone regardless.
posted by raysmj at 11:19 AM on June 8, 2001


I wish someone would unleash Tool on her whiny ass

I would just like to say that Tool is the Eater of Worlds, and would devour Ms. Love authoritatively and with unforgiving, machinelike precision. In total silence.

The new Jonatha Brooke album is pretty cool, too.
posted by scottandrew at 11:55 AM on June 8, 2001


I'd have to side with Love against the Major record labels, as Negativland pointed out in "Fair Use" many record contracts put all the risk on the band while creating most profit for the label. It works like this, the band gets X amount of dollars to record an album from the record label. In addtition the label puts money up for pressing, promotion and the like (We'll call that Y)... Now when the album comes out, the label takes X and Y out of the royalities made from the album before the artists get anything. But... Once the debt to the label is repaid, the label continues to get sometimes half or more of the money put up for the album. In addition, most bands have to pay back any money or records they owe a record label if they break up... This has caused some very talented musicians (i.e. Joe Strummer of The Clash) to essentially be slaves to a record label.
posted by drezdn at 12:14 PM on June 8, 2001


We talked about this a few months ago; here's that discussion.

Have you gone into a record store and wondered about all those albums from all those bands you have never heard from?

Unlike the Merge Records of the world, major labels aren't set up to break even on a moderately selling album. The vast majority of bands would be better off putting an album out themselves or on a smaller label that can make a profit on sales of 40,000 CDs. What those smaller labels can't do is sell a million copies of an album; I used to have some Soundscan figures, and they often -- even well-known bands like Superchunk or Belle & Sebastian -- topped out at a few hundred copies sold a week.
posted by snarkout at 1:09 PM on June 8, 2001


U2, for example, gained ownership of all the band's songs after renewing a contract with Island Records

I imagine U2 has quite a bit more influence in negotiations with the label than Joe's Jug Band.
posted by daveadams at 1:17 PM on June 8, 2001


Some of you make it sound like because big labels gamble on so many 'moderately successful' artists, they don't break even, and need the big stars to counter the risks and complete failures. Sorry. I just don't buy that. The music industry didn't get where it is today by taking that many risks. Intrinsically, robbing Peter to pay Paul is doomed to fail. You can't build an empire that way.

Rather, Hillary Rosen wants people to think that's what's happening, when what's really happening is that like Hillary Rosen, RIAA is top heavy. Too many middlemen. Too many cooks spoiling the broth. Too many hands in the cookie jar. There's a lotta mouths suckling on the RIAA teats. None of them want to let go, but they're existing on the backs of talented people, who comparatively get little to nothing for their labors.

It takes a buck to make a single CD, which is sold for twenty. How much of that $20 does the artist see? If you single-handedly built a car for someone else to sell, and they sold it for thousands of dollars but only gave you a couple hundred, wouldn't you be ticked?
posted by ZachsMind at 3:42 AM on June 9, 2001


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