Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Singing to a different tune

Pop stars are swapping guitars for banners to take the power back from the record companies, writes Paul Campbell

August 23, 2009
4 min read

Three days before the Beatles released Love Me Do, they signed a five-year contract with manager Brian Epstein. The contract was so informal and measly it was actually written out on the back of a row of stamps. Epstein then negotiated a deal with Parlophone Records that gave the band no advances and earned them one penny for every double-sided disc they sold.

The shape of the record industry has changed dramatically in the 46 years since, but it is not necessarily any more rewarding than in the 1960s. That explains the formation of the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC), a coalition of working musicians who aim to strike a new bargain with the companies that distribute and sell their music in the digital age. Over 140 well-known artists, including Billy Bragg, Robbie Williams, Radiohead, Annie Lennox and Kate Nash, have signed up.

The coalition has formed at a time of crisis for the record industry. Under the old model, musicians such as the Beatles signed away control of their ownership rights in exchange for a record company’s expertise in production, marketing and distribution. But the structure of the industry is changing. While the Beatles needed Parlophone in the sixties, popular artists can now eschew the traditional labels. FAC members Radiohead left Parlophone to release their latest record In Rainbows on their own website.

Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien believes new technology can be used as a bargaining tool by artists: ‘The reason we can do all this is because the internet and digital technology have changed the landscape in the music industry, which basically means people can now release their music without a middleman, without a record company.’

Musicians need a new set of agreements that reflect the new ways music is ‘consumed’, argues David Rowntree, Blur drummer and FAC board member: ‘The digital revolution has swept away the old music business of the 1960s and changed forever the relationship between artists and fans. For companies who made their money by sitting between the two, these are increasingly hard times, but for music makers and music fans this should be a fantastic opportunity. Acting together, we can be a powerful force. We need to re-shape the industry for the future so it serves those who want to make music and those who want to hear it.’

The coalition aims to use a collective voice to retain music ownership, negotiate with digital distributors and rewrite unfavourable copyright laws. A key issue for the FAC is receiving compensation for music distributed freely to consumers through companies such as Google and MySpace. Artists are not routinely consulted in deals their labels and publishers strike with these digital partners. Kate Nash emphasizes that the enemy is not the young consumers, but parasitical companies: ‘If someone is just listening to my music I can’t punish them for that. But if organisations such as Google and MySpace are making large profits they can pay for it.’

Record companies are engaging with digital technology to protect their interests and profits. O’Brien believes artists need to do the same: ‘This is a defining time for the industry. A lot of the rights and revenue streams are being carved up, and we need a voice. We need to be in there and we need to be discussing it, and I think all the major players want to hear what we have to say.’

Alexander Ross, a music lawyer with London-based firm Theodore Goddard, believes established artists are already benefiting from a tilt in the balance of power: ‘There’s been a real shift in their awareness of their bargaining power. Some of the real Stone Age artists are so wealthy that if they don’t like the way their work is being marketed they can set up their own labels, record their own music and sell it to interested companies under licence.’

While established artists can forge their own way in the industry without publishers and distributors, young artists – like the Beatles in 1962 – remain vulnerable to the preying eyes of record companies. Billy Bragg hopes they can help: ‘The FAC will actually go out and mentor and educate young artists not to sign “life of copyright” deals. What we need is an industry where the next Billy Bragg can make a living like I have for the past 25 years.’

Not every young band can pull off their own In Rainbows, but at least they can now have Thom Yorke and co at their back.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going