Time Has Come for a Union!

Considering that Lester Chambers wrote one of the best-known songs of 1968, his recent public photograph might come as a surprise. Using an Internet trope that’s become quite familiar in the age of Occupy, the lead singer of the Chambers Brothers informed the world:

I am the former lead singer of a ‘60s band. I performed before thousands at Atlanta Pop 2, Miami Pop, Newport Pop, Atlantic Pop. I did not squander my money on drugs or a fancy home. I went from 1967 – 1994 before I saw my first royalty check. The music giants I recorded with only paid me for 7 of my albums. I have never seen a penny in royalties from my other 10 albums I recorded. Our hit song was licensed to over 100 films, TV and commercials without our permission. One major TV network used our song for a national commercial and my payment was 625 dollars. I am now 72, trying to live on $1200 a month. Sweet Relief, a music charity, is taking donations for me. Only the 1% of artists can afford to sue. I am the 99%.

Chambers is no lightweight. “Time Has Come Today”  was one of those songs that everyone knew in its day. Eleven minutes long, pulling inspiration from soul, rock and psychedelia, social struggle and youthful rebellion, its simple sentiment was one that captured the anxiety-tinged excitement of 1968 (even if it was recorded two years prior and released in November of 1967).

The song spent five weeks at number eleven on the Billboard charts in the fall of ‘68. The single sold over half a million copies, and the Recording Industry Association of America presented the band with a Gold Certification… which Chambers holds in front of his face in his 99% photo. Lester Chambers is just barely scraping by like the rest of us.

Chambers’ photograph contradicts everything we’re taught about those who make music for a living. To believe what the media tells us, anyone lucky enough to be a professional recording artist is only a few inevitable steps away from the charmed life of a Hollywood millionaire.

The harsh reality, however, is very different. Chambers’ story is only one of countless others like it. And if an artist like him is reaching out to a long-awaited movement against income inequality, then perhaps the time has finally come for us to talk about something else that has long been missing from the recording industry: a union for its artists.

Consider the following facts:

– Signed artists shoulder most of the financial risk of their careers themselves. Though the standard record contract provides artists with an advance, they are expected to use that advance for recording and touring costs.

– The traditional record contract pays artists no more than 15 percent of all album sales (the average is actually around 12 percent). Much of the time, artists do not begin to see any royalties until the record label has recouped their initial advance. For every $1000 of music sold, the average musician makes $23.

– The “360 Deal,” a recent development in the record business and presented as an alternative to the traditional record deal, offers to pay for touring and other expenses. In return, however, labels demand up to 30 percent of performance or ticket sale income and up to 50 percent of merchandise income.

– Virtually no record contract provides artists with benefits. No pension, no severance pay for termination of the deal, no paid vacation or holidays. The amount of working musicians with adequate health insurance? Four percent. No, that’s not a typo. Ninety-six percent of recording artists are either under-insured or uninsured altogether.

Many would argue an apparently straightforward solution to the recording artists’ plight: sell a lot of albums. After all, if you sell half a million units at around $10 or so, then even after you’ve paid back the advance, you’re still left with $45,000 (which is still a far cry from what we’re told a Gold artist rakes in).

The problem is that few contracted artists ever get close to that. In 2010, 75,000 new albums were released in the United States, of which roughly 15,000 sold more than 100 units. Forget going Gold or Platinum. For that matter, forget selling 100,000 or even enough to place close to the charts. The vast majority of signed artists don’t even sell enough to pay back their label.

All of this adds up to a recipe for debt. And as any recent college graduate can attest, debt can be a great way to force you into situations that you’d rather not be in.

Oddly enough, recording artists have not one but two unions in the industry. Singing artists are normally represented by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). Non-singing artists have their contracts negotiated by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).

Both of these unions are well worth defending, but, in essence, this set-up makes it easier to divide musicians rather than unite them. A band’s vocalist is represented by a different organization than, say, a guitarist, drummer or pianist. Neither AFM nor AFTRA have a comprehensive stance on paying artists royalties, as their primary bases of power are, respectively, in orchestras and session musicians or TV and radio.

Whether a recording artists’ organization can emerge from one of these two unions or from a new one entirely isn’t clear (it bears mentioning, however, that the AFM is fighting for its life as company after company puts its orchestra on the chopping block). But it is absolutely crucial that it happen.

Who Owns Music?

At the center of the issue is that most fundamental antagonism in a system based on profit: those who work vs. those who own. Even though recording artists put in virtually all of the hard work–from writing the songs to overseeing the album artwork–ultimate ownership of the music remains with the label itself. It’s a crime that’s little different from the daily exploitation of an auto worker or Starbucks barista. Music may be a labor of love, but it’s still labor.

And as Lester Chambers and countless others can attest, most of the time it’s the labels that determine the conditions of this labor. Contemporary music history is littered with stories of record companies sitting on excellent albums, refusing to release them as artists’ income dwindles to nothing.

Saigon, one of the most consistently acclaimed rappers of the past decade, had his debut album delayed for four years because Atlantic Records refused to release it. Though he was eventually released from his contract, and the album was put out on an independent label, The Greatest Story Never Told was almost, well, never told.

In 1981, hardcore legends Black Flag were forced to break into a pressing plant  in order to release their iconic album Damaged themselves. The reason? Al Bergamo, head of MCA subsidiary Unicorn Records, had deemed the album “immoral” and “anti-parent.” The members of Black Flag spent the next two years buried under lawsuits and court injunctions, which only stopped after Unicorn Records went out of business.

In both cases, artists themselves had put untold amounts of sweat into writing and recording genuinely unique and original music. In both cases, the asinine whims of their bosses nearly prevented the fruit of that sweat from being realized. The music, the beats, the production and lyrics were all the result of the artists’ creativity and sacrifice. None of that mattered to the label, whose ownership over the music legally trumped the artists’ labor.

The irony, of course, is that we hear a lot of noise about ownership of music in the age of peer-to-peer file-sharing and “piracy.” Whenever the RIAA bankrupts a single parent or attempts to sue a twelve-year-old girl for downloading “Happy Birthday,” the typical justification is that they haven’t paid for these songs, and therefore have no right to “own” them. Conveniently ignored is that the very people the industry is claiming to protect–artists–frequently don’t own their music either, at least in the legal sense.

Never mind that, fifteen years in, there has yet to be any definitive evidence that file-sharing harms album sales. What really scares the record labels is they are now potentially irrelevant. Artists from Radiohead to Saul Williams to Wilco have explored the possibilities for reaching their audience directly through the World Wide Web–free from the meddling of corporate middle-men.

Often, the results have been impressive. Radiohead’s In Rainbows went platinum within a few days of its online release and made the band members more money than they ever had with EMI. They, of course, are an exception. One still-overlooked aspect of the peer-to-peer debate is how artists who are just starting out might manage to make a living off a web-released album.

Nonetheless, if the Big Four are shaking in their boots, then it’s because the age of file-sharing has drastically shifted the balance of power in favor of the artists. That’s an unprecedented state of affairs, and leaves the door wide open to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the recording industry:

Why should those who do nothing get to own music that artists create? Why, despite potentially making a large chunk of change for a record label, should artists be denied any measure of financial or creative control? Why, if artists can reach fans with the music they want to make via Bandcamp or MySpace, should they go through the labels in the first place?

And finally, why can’t this state of affairs be used as leverage to win some real gains from major record labels in the here and now?

To be sure, this wouldn’t be the first time artists asked these questions in a collective setting. Recording artists in the United Kingdom currently have the option of joining a collective organization if they so choose. The Featured Artists Coalition, founded in April of 2008 and supported by the UK Trade Union Congress, has garnered the membership of Radiohead, Gang of Four, Kate Nash, the Kaiser Chiefs, Futureheads and hundreds of others. Its primary goal is to make sure artists’ voices are heard in licensing deals between record companies and outside entities (TV shows, movies, commercials, etc).

Nor would this be the first time the issue has been raised in the US. Over the past decade, artists and producers as varied as REM, Irv Gotti, Courtney Love, Q-Tip, the Dixie Chicks and Prince have publicly voiced the need for a recording artists’ union.

Perhaps our own era of protest and resistance has provided the chance to make these discussions a reality. Corporate America hasn’t been so hated in two generations. The RIAA’s cutthroat behavior certainly hasn’t set them apart from the Goldman Sachs or AIG’s of the world. And Lester Chambers, modest though his effort might have been, provoked a stunning amount of solidarity. The day after his picture went viral, Sweet Relief reported over $10,000 in donations. Maybe, at last, Chambers and the rest of music’s 99% can get what they’ve long deserved.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.