Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Artists are mad as hell and are not going to take this anymore

Perhaps it was the Billboard FAQ about Universal’s takeover of EMI which finally pushed them over the edge. It looked at what the deal meant, what’s likely to happen next and which assets will be sold to copperfasten the deal …

Wed, Oct 3, 2012, 09:09


Perhaps it was the Billboard FAQ about Universal’s takeover of EMI which finally pushed them over the edge. It looked at what the deal meant, what’s likely to happen next and which assets will be sold to copperfasten the deal which makes Universal the rulers of the record label universe (a somewhat reduced space in 2012, it must be said). The artists? Well, a bunch of high-profile acts were listed, but that was that. They’re assets, baby, and this deal is about sweating the assets. In fact, some of the acts should be glad to be described as assets at all, seeing as they’ve probably yet to recoup their advances. At least no-one called them distressed assets.

This week, the artists struck back and wrote a letter giving out about how they were not happy with this state of affairs. While the letter is said to be the work of “some” artists signed to EMI and Parlophone, Blur are the only act actually cited to date in reports. Band drummer Dave Rowntree said “artists are the only people currently being left out of the conversation, which is unfortunate. If the staff at the label are unhappy with the new arrangements they are free to leave, but the artists are not.”

The problem is that it’s not as cut and dried as this. Aside from being a drummer, Rowntree is also a solicitor and he should recall that the band signed contracts with EMI solicitors at some stage in the past. These contracts were signed by the band after they took legal advice – or were advised to take independent legal advice – about what they were signing. These contracts, onerous as they may have been, were signed by band members of their own free will – EMI lawyers do not, the last time we looked, operate like Gus Fring. These contracts saw the band getting advances against future earnings to ensure they had recording budgets, wages and everything else needed to get the band on the road. These contracts saw the label taking a chance on a band who, when you look at the industry scoreboard, might well have ended up not making a dime and costing hundreds of thousands of pounds/dollars/euro. These contracts saw an exchange of cash in return for rights, something which would have been spelled out clearly to the band at the time (if not, they should have a word with their own legal team who advised them on that contract).

When the contracts were signed, the band, like any artist who signs such a contract, became an EMI asset. It’s the way the business world operates. Sure, we like to think that the music business is different because we deal with musicians and artists and art but, at the end of the day, it’s a business. You give something to get something. The band could have said no to the deal, went their own way, released their own records and owned their own rights. But that is not what they did and now, over 20 years after the contract was signed, Blur’s catalogue is up for auction because some smart, prescient A&R manager persuaded his bean-counters to sign the band back when they were simply just another band. And the band signed on the dotted line. And here we are.

The first party, the second party and the pen

I will admit that this is undoubtedly a very harsh, straight reading of what is going on. After all, as Helienne Lindvall pointed out a few weeks ago, there is also the fact that the acts will have developed relationships with key people within the label and that these relationships are now sundered. Many acts will have signed contracts with one label and set of people only to find themselves shunted along to another set of people and another label after a sale or takeover. Lindvall makes the point that “artists should be looked after by people with vision, passion and determination, who will keep plugging away (and be supported by the label) even when an album doesn’t make the top 40 in the first month.” But as we know from the sob stories which have always popped up in this sector, this is rarely the case. The days of acts getting that kind of support are well and truly over because the record business that used to operate with that sort of canny, patient, artist-friendly acumen no longer exists, bar in very small, indepedent pockets (see Domino, XL and the usual suspects in this regard).

But that’s only one change of many on this beat. As we can see from the excellent profile of Grizzly Bear in New York magazine, the optics which still surround the music industry no longer match the reality. Journalist Nitsuh Abebe notes that “for much of the late-twentieth century, you might have assumed that musicians with a top-twenty sales week and a Radio City show — say, the U2 tour in 1984, after The Unforgettable Fire —made at least as much as their dentists. Those days are long and irretrievably gone, but some of the mental habits linger.”

Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste concurs with this view. “People probably have an inflated idea of what we make. Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one’s buying records. But they’ll go to giant shows. Obviously we’re surviving. Some of us have health insurance, some of us don’t, we basically all live in the same places, no one’s renting private jets. Come to your own conclusions.”

When an act like Grizzly Bear, a successful independent act who have released a bunch of critically acclaimed albums, who play big shows and are regulars on the festival circuit, are kvetching about their lot in life, you know the system is broken. No doubt, they also have quibbles over the contracts they’ve signed over the years – all bands have quibbles about stuff they’ve done in the past – and would do things differently again. But, to quote the oracle, they are where they are and they have to get on with it. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that they, like thousands of other acts, are operating in a business who no longer operates in the way it used to.

What the sabre-rattling from the EMI acts shows is that a notion about doing things differently runs riot at times like this. Such a notion was never in vogue when Blur and their fellow EMI acts were signing their contracts (and sipping the champagne which always accompanies the signing of such contracts) after being successfully wooed back in the day. But now, over 20 years after the fact and after those label deals have seen the acts become successful, everyone wants to do things differently going forward. While this might work for brand new deals – the record labels have already taken a swing at this with 360 deals, deals which make the old contracts look like veritable giveaways- there are legacy issues within the deals penned with older, established acts which prevent this happening. The bottom line here is, as always, that acts should be damn careful about what they’re signing up for.