Time Has Come for a Union

Published on Dissident Voice, by Alexander Billet, March 9, 2012.

… 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 … (full long text).

(Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist in Chicago and runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a columnist for SOCIARTS and has also appeared in Z Magazine, SocialistWorker.org, New Politics and TheNation.com. He can be reached here. Read other articles by Alexander).

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