March 21, 2001
1:14 PM   Subscribe

While I'm not a huge Hole fan, Courtney Love's letter to other recording artists makes me look at her a bit differently. The letter is a pretty strong plea for them to organize a union representing their interests. With all of the press that has been genereated over the RIAA/Napster battle, do you think the timing is right?

Garage Bands of the world, Unite! Move over Rick Trumka (link via SVN).
posted by trox (30 comments total)
Oh, thank God!

If Napster has done one good thing, it's shown the horrifying abuses of the recording industry when it comes to the artists. I doubt very much that this action wouldn't be taken if Napster hadn't been around.

I'm also very adamant about artists having a good business sense and being supercritical about their contracts.

Combined with the Writer's Guild strike that's coming up soon, it seems like there's a real movement on the part of artists to finally get what they deserve. And if the artists aren't there, what are they gonna sell us? A bunch of scabs.

I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but Go Courtney!
posted by solistrato at 1:33 PM on March 21, 2001

There is already such a union for freelance writers, the National Writers Union who have many similar, if not identical, concerns with respect to royalty rates, bill-backs of promotional and production costs, and (most importantly) digital rights.

The NWU is a local of the United Auto Workers ... not as weird as it sounds, as the UAW has worked aggressively to create locals among a wide variety of "knowledge workers" (they are a prime mover behind unionization of graduate student instructors at major universities).

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) have a quite nice franchise in newspaper newsrooms, and certainly represents far more writers than does the NWU, but their focus on wages and benefits, rather than royalties and rights, makes them not as good a model, nor are they likely to have the specific skills and experiences to organize effectively and win some good contracts.

My guess, though, is that the best organizational fit and model would be found in one of the actors' unions, either SAG/AFTRA (movie and TV actors) or Equity (stage actors). They do a pretty good job of balancing the needs of three distinctly different sets of interests: a very large group of aspiring / starving artist types (those with day-jobs or support from mom and dad or a spouse), a modest-size contingent of full-time performers who depend upon the union for the benefits and wage-scale enforcement to make their work provide a decent living and a secure retirement, and a tiny but powerful group of superstars. Superstar solidarity, when superstars don't really gain anything at all from the union directly, is the key to the actors' unions long-term success.

The biggest problem would probably be that the superstars in acting tend to be older, politically active / savvy, and are frequently decently educated. Music superstars-du-jour are almost by definition extremely young, un- or under-educated, and if they have any savvy at all, painfully aware of their extraordinarily limited shelf-life, and thus highly averse to fights which could cost them their once-in-a-lifetime window for going multiplatinum. The older sophisticated starts of music -- the Rolling Stones, REMs, and Bruce Springtsteens of the world -- aren't really moving records any more, and so they don't have the weight with the industry that the "A" list Hollywood talent has with their industry.
posted by MattD at 1:36 PM on March 21, 2001

You know.....I feel their pain..but....It's hard for me to feel sorry for someone who buys million dollar homes, hires personal chefs, buys fancy cars, then files bankruptcy.
Call me insensitive. I am just trying to pay my grocery bill, and Courtney complains about dental coverage.
posted by bradth27 at 2:16 PM on March 21, 2001

Well, regardless about how you feel about rich people, the vast majority of musicians (signed, even) don't make much money. At all.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:19 PM on March 21, 2001

true, but Courtney does.
posted by bradth27 at 2:39 PM on March 21, 2001

all courtney is doing is plagairizing what steve albini has been saying for nearly a decade (circa: 1994). kinda like how all she does is plagairize her dead husband.
posted by afx114 at 2:42 PM on March 21, 2001

So the fact that she makes a lot of money means that whatever she does will only apply to successful musicians, bradth27? Nah, I bet whatever union gets formed (if one does) helps *ALL* musicians.
posted by jsapn at 2:46 PM on March 21, 2001

Like her or dislike her, afx114, even Steve Albini would agree that she's currently in a position where she wields more power (read: sells more records) than Steve ever has.
posted by jsapn at 2:48 PM on March 21, 2001

okay. read back, read my comment, and rethink the issue here. My comment was directed at Courtney, not at all musicians.
posted by bradth27 at 2:50 PM on March 21, 2001

Besides, I think all musicians should have wonderful teeth.
posted by bradth27 at 2:51 PM on March 21, 2001

you're right. i just think it's shitty that she's passing this research/opinion off as her own. i'm sure your 9th grade english teacher would agree.
posted by afx114 at 2:53 PM on March 21, 2001

Steve Albini was hardly the first person to notice that musicians hardly make any money, and get constantly screwed by the majors -- and that there should be an alternative, if that's what you're saying. Try reading "Hit Men," a inside look at the payola scandals of the 1980s which just happened to be a best seller. (Nothing much has changed in re to independent promotion since that time, as the author predicted.) Then there's the countless editions of Behind the Music. Sure, Steve A. had a totally original thought.
posted by raysmj at 4:18 PM on March 21, 2001

Exactly - to a certain degree, who cares if it's her work or not? She's seen enough of it firsthand over the years to have a genuinely informed opinion. (Thanks, raysmj, for cutting my long post in half.)

The point is, she's got a pulpit, and she using it, and I happen to agree with an awful lot of what she's saying.

The vast majority of musicians work in what amounts to indentured servtude to the companies who own virtual monopolies on the airwaves and high-circulation print media. There are so many hogs feeding at the trough, on the artist's dime, that there's got to be some kind of change, or else these companies are going to topple off into obscurity naturally.

Courtney's actions here are possibly the only way the record companies that made her millons (and many others far less deserving way, way more) might be able to survive this. It might force them to actually address the concerns of their employees, without whom they wouldn't even exist.

I would join and promote such a union in a minute if it was organized properly and had enough solidarity and backbone to withstand the inevitable disinformation campaigns and backlashes you know would be coming.
posted by chicobangs at 4:25 PM on March 21, 2001

Besides, I think all musicians should have wonderful teeth.

There goes my "good musicians have bad teeth" theory.

While Courtney isn't saying anything new, she has the star power and recognizable name to get the word out. If you asked an average 14-year-old who Courtney Love is, she'd probably know; if you asked an average 14-year-old who Steve Albini is, she probably wouldn't know. This example makes all sorts of assumptions, but so long as Courtney's got the spotlight, I say what the heck.

And these musicians can go bankrupt. While I don't think too much of TLC's music (not for me), T-Boz explained how it all worked out very well on Behind the Music - and essentially, each of them was taking home something like $30k/year. Which isn't bad, but given their fame, you might figure it'd be just a touch more. Where'd it go? Mismanagement, record company. While a union won't necessarily solve poor management, it would help put the record companies in their place.
posted by hijinx at 4:39 PM on March 21, 2001

yeah i suppose you're right. albini is just ripping off moses, who was the first one ever to fight for artists' rights when he said "let my people go."
posted by afx114 at 6:21 PM on March 21, 2001

Besides, I think all musicians should have wonderful teeth

a must link to the (now defunct) pogue's frontman shane macgowan
posted by lescour at 6:23 PM on March 21, 2001

Another reason Love is a good champion for this fight is that there isn't much sh*t the record companies can throw at her that she hasn't dealt with before.

With the generally low opinion people already have for her it would be hard for the RIAA to spin her in a worse light. It seems to me this forces people to take her argument separately from her persona. Hence the "I don't really like her but she makes sense" posts.

Bruce Springsteen could not take this fight on but as it's been said --
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned
posted by valintin23 at 7:08 PM on March 21, 2001

afx, stop and think for a moment. You'd have a point if Courtney Love were ripping off a Steve Albini song.

This is not a song. It's a political idea. Those are free. Pass 'em on.

Fans devolving into a stupid fanboy "A is better than B" fire drill can only further divide musicians, when the case is being made that they need to unite.

The striking and jaw-droppingly arrogant move of the recording industry to sneak ownership of all song copyrights out of a little-noticed amendment to an unrelated revision of the copyright laws simply shows to what lengths they will go to screw artists. I'm surprised they didn't face wholesale revolt over that move. Maybe this is it.

Screw what Steve Albini said -- what, eight years ago? What's he done since?
posted by dhartung at 7:12 PM on March 21, 2001

Anybody here ever hear of Hank Williams? That was one guy that really got ripped off.
posted by bjgeiger at 7:18 PM on March 21, 2001

dhartung: the only reason the riaa settled with the artists is because they feared what would happen if the artists didn't get behind them on the stamp out napster campaign. bad pr, maybe some radical move to change the way the music industry works, with napster as a central player...who knows? the riaa couldn't afford to find out.
posted by lescour at 7:25 PM on March 21, 2001

If Courtney actually gets anything done here, she'll be a hero to a lot of people. Someone mentioned Hank. He's joined by dozens of R&B and blues acts over the years, the ones who provided most of the foundation for 95% of the music on the radio today. Many are still alive, and given at least a modicum of support from the R&B Foundation.

Once you hear that, say, Nina Simone is flat broke (as I did last week) it's hard to listen to that artist's music in quite the same way again. Well, at least not in the same way all the time. (Pause.) OK I'm not sure about that, but it's a downer to be sure.
posted by raysmj at 8:19 PM on March 21, 2001

i really see no difference between a song and a political idea. both are expressions. both are intangible. politicians/thinkers get "paid." musicians get "paid." what if courtney was ripping her ideas off a song albini had written about it? would your claim change? i for one think that both should be free. but that's beside the point and a whole other agument. ..

i have no problem with courtney, or the fact that she's bringing these facts to the masses. my problem lies in the fact that she's not giving credit where credit's due and painting herself as some martyr or savior of musicians. like, whatever, dude.
posted by afx114 at 11:07 PM on March 21, 2001

i really see no difference between a song and a political idea.

The difference is that songs are a lot harder to come up with than ideas, especially obvious ideas like "musicians get ripped off a lot and deserve to be treated much better."
posted by kindall at 12:21 AM on March 22, 2001

If the costs of distribution fall low enough, then artists won't even need record companies to get their music out; they'll be able to sell directly to consumers. Then, they wouldn't need a union.
posted by Loudmax at 1:03 AM on March 22, 2001

afx114: For the record, my 9th grade English teacher was a converted PhysEd teacher (we had budget cuts, she had seniority)/moron who couldn't spell the name of Disney's most famous creation correctly (hint: it's not 'M-I-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E'). I doubt she'd agree with me.

You say: my problem lies in the fact that she's not giving credit where credit's due and painting herself as some martyr or savior of musicians.
Um, credit is somehow due to Steve Albini for being a martyr for musicians? By your logic, C. Love should be crediting union forefathers, then.
Can you point to something that somehow indicates that she's attempting to take credit for the idea of unionizing musicians?

You also say: like, whatever, dude.

dhartung: What's Steve Albini done in the last 8 years? I just bought a new CD by his current combo Shellac. He remains a vocal champion against rock bands that (in his opinion, it must be noted) suck.
posted by jsapn at 6:58 AM on March 22, 2001

hypothetical situation:

presenting my honors thesis in front of the world leaders and a mass of regular everyday people. recite word for word voltaire's candide, the bible, or maybe the constitution, or any other "political" document you all aggree on/support without any mention of the original piece's author. according to what you've all said, i should be praised for bringing the content of the political document to the awareness of the masses.

actual result: i get ripped a new hole for plagairism.

suck on that, sukkas.
posted by afx114 at 7:46 AM on March 22, 2001

It's not the messenger that's important, it's the message.
posted by solistrato at 8:43 AM on March 22, 2001

Other than Shellac, here's what Steve Albini has been up to lately. (Can't promise that the list is accurate, as the author spelled a Superchunk album title wrong. I am a dork for recognizing this.)

On a more-related topic, DC punk label Dischord now pays for health insurance for its musicians. Although Dischord is a special case -- presumably subsidized by the sales from Dischord co-owner Ian MacKaye's huge-in-the-indie-world band Fugazi -- what's to keep indie labels from poaching bands right back by offering higher royalty rates, more benefits, and better contract terms to bands that aren't ever going to be big?

I'm especially thinking of bands dropped from major labels, like the Poster Children or the Dismemberment Plant, but I don't imagine that indie artists Neko Case (country) or Mos Def (hip-hop), good as they are, believe that they're ever going to be huge stars. Ninety-five percent of bands, even with a major-label contract, don't succeed commercially; I guess I'm just surprised that more of them don't opt out of the system and play in a sandbox where they can make some money selling fifty thousand CDs instead of losing money selling five hundred thousand.
posted by snarkout at 8:52 AM on March 22, 2001

afx114: actual result: i get ripped a new hole for plagairism.

True, but if you took an existing political concept (say tax reform, pick a stance, I care not) and presented it to the masses in your own way and in your own voice, and actually created some kind of change you'd be justifiably praised for it.

Love's taking a political concept that Albini popularised to a degree 8 years ago, and taking it to a level that he's just not able to, and in that regards is putting her own spin on it.

You don't see Goodyear passing on credit (or profit!) to the descendants of Ugh, the proto-human that first figured out that wheels roll easier than squares.

Also, while they're both talking about how recording artists suffer a lot of unfair treatment, Love's actually spearheading the organization of a union that represents band members' specific needs. There's a striking difference between saying "Here's what's wrong" and "Here's how to fix what's wrong."
posted by cCranium at 8:55 AM on March 22, 2001

afx, you're clearly just being a jerk fanboy with a hard-on for Albini now. Get over it, okay? Courtney Love is doing something for artists. All Steve Albini did was write an article. Should we get rid of the United States of America because Thomas Jefferson failed to pay royalties to Plato?

As for your thesis comparison, well, there is no comparison. A thesis by definition must contain original content. A political idea, by definition, is useless if not shared.

If Steve Albini thinks there's something wrong with Courtney Love recycling something he wrote, something that was promptly mostly forgotten except by a select group of fans and insiders, I will patiently await the day when he says something about it.
posted by dhartung at 3:50 PM on March 22, 2001

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