Unfree Masters: Recording Artists and the Politics of Work

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Unfree Masters: Recording Artists and the Politics of Work. By Matt Stahl. Duke University Press. 312pp, Pounds 67.00 and Pounds 16.99. ISBN 9780822353287 and 353430. Published 1 December 2012

Here is a book that does several things at once. It explains the current status of recording artists, both as subordinated employees and as free entrepreneurs who license rights to intellectual property, namely their music compositions and recordings. It also shows how, from the standpoint of labour politics, these cultural workers are not so different from other workers in a neoliberal political economy: competing individually while dreaming of autonomy, and contractually tied to a record company that snaps up their creative output for exploitation and keeps them indebted while offering little security.

In short, recording artists are shown to be both working people who sell their labour and entrepreneurs who sell the product of their labour: even "at the height of their power, they remain subject to the still more powerful multinational conglomerates who hold their contracts and whose influence on lawmakers is more formidable", as Matt Stahl states. This point is evidenced through case studies that address the politics at play in recording artists' careers in terms of US employment, contract and copyright legislation.

In my experience as a recording artist in the UK, even "renegade" independent recording labels have the power to make - or break - a music career. While some independent labels pride themselves on forgoing signed contracts with their artists, this is not necessarily helpful, even where a verbal agreement is made to fairly share half of the net profit accruing from the release of recordings. This seems a generous offer (compared with traditional labels' offer of "points" on the retail price of recordings, from which additional costs are deducted) but it provides no mutual securities.

First, no profit, no income; as an independent recording artist I was still in debt to my label for the cost of making a first record when the second and even third recordings began. Second, no contract, no label obligations; for Situationist political reasons, my label did not believe in undertaking marketing initiatives beyond excellent sleeve design, preferring a more enigmatic stance that attracted a loyal, even fanatic, following of collectors. Nevertheless, without the expenditure of effort and resources to push a well-received recording up the charts, viable income became a mirage.

Further exacerbating its artists' poverty was my renegade label's refusal to pay royalties to composers (and publishers), as it did not recognise the capitalist concept of (mechanical) copyright - and neither did it contractually own the sound recordings, which meant the label's management was unable to sell on most of the back catalogue. …