On the Record: Toward a Union Label

The Nation, April 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

On the Record: Toward a Union Label


Courtney Love's plea to fellow recording artists to join her in the creation of a new musicians' guild, printed below, is the latest blow to the beleaguered "Big Five" conglomerates that control the music industry. Although the record companies have landed court injunctions against the renegade Napster website in recent weeks, there is little chance the industry can reverse the explosion of decentralized music file-trading and distribution on the Internet. Love's timely missive capitalizes on the public's growing resentment of conglomerates' desperate efforts to retain control of all aspects of music distribution.

Industry apologists will undoubtedly dismiss Love's well-researched and biting analysis as a publicity stunt designed to garner support for her legal battle with Universal Music Group (UMG), the parent company that owns Geffen Records, to which Love's rock band Hole was signed in 1992. UMG filed a lawsuit against Love & Co. in January 2000 after the singer-actress cited California Labor Code Section 2855 in an attempt to terminate her band's recording contract. Enacted in 1937, Section 2855 was the basis of a 1945 ruling against Warner Brothers Pictures in favor of actress Olivia De Havilland, which established that her studio contract could not be extended beyond seven years. The code's seven-year restriction has safeguarded the career interests of film actors. Love has responded to UMG's legal action with a countersuit. Her legal team contends that a 1987 amendment eliminated any possibility of the protection being offered to musicians, and that among other things the amendment to the labor code was railroaded into law by powerful music-industry interests with no input from musicians. The forty-six-page countersuit, which can be downloaded from the Internet at www.theredceiling.com, is a thorough indictment of the hidden inequities that litter nearly every major-label recording contract.

The groundwork for substantive artist empowerment is, in fact, already being laid through the efforts of groups like the nascent Future of Music Coalition (www.futureofmusic.org). Since its inception last year, FMC has developed an ambitious and aggressive agenda to raise public consciousness and educate legislators on Capitol Hill about the stranglehold that the major labels have on many artists. It remains to be seen whether Courtney Love's newfound community spirit will be buttressed by a sustained effort--like that of FMC--to mobilize recording artists and supporters. Given the star's history of bombastic public behavior, she may be greeted with skepticism about her intent. Regardless of Love's motives, however, her letter can only serve to help destabilize the calcified music industry, and it provides a compelling blueprint for organizing musicians to launch further attacks on the Big Five behemoths.

JOHNNY TEMPLE
Dear Fellow Recording Artists

I'm writing to ask you to join the chorus of recording artists who want us all to get a fair deal from the record companies. R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, U2, Alanis Morissette, Bush, Prince and Q-Tip have called me with their support, and we need your participation as well.

There are 3 basic facts all recording artists should know:

1. No one has ever represented the rights and interests of recording artists AS A GROUP in negotiations with record companies.

2. Recording artists don't have access to quality health care and pension plans like the ones made available to actors and athletes through their unions.

3. Recording artists are paid royalties that represent a tiny fraction of the money their work earns.

As I was working with my manager and my new attorneys on my lawsuit with the Universal Music Group, we realized that the most unfair clauses in my contract applied to ALL recording artists. Most important, no one was representing artists in an attempt to change the system. Recording artists need to form a new organization that will represent their interests in Washington and negotiate fair contract terms with record companies.

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