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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.

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