In January copyright law (technology and music) expert Chris Castle posted a great interview with Rick Carnes the President of the Songwriter’s Guild.
Carnes speaks for the songwriters that are getting screwed in today’s tech-driven, share-don’t-care world of music and celebrity labels. Songwriters “don’t sell t-shirts, don’t play shows, and don’t have all the other income streams available to them” (as the performers do). They are getting “remixed out of culture”. As a consequence, “there are fewer and fewer original professional songwriters around every year.” “The days of the ‘stand alone’ songwriter appear to be over.” “Songwriters were the number one loser of income in the US economy in 2004”. “We (songwriters) make our money on record sales and radio airplay. Or, we USED to make our money on record sales. Illegal downloading ended that. Now we are looking for new jobs.”
I agree with Carnes, the death of the songwriter as a career is detrimental to the music industry. The quality of music suffers. Here’s another quote from Carnes: “You (labels) can get kids who don’t need money to support families or pay house notes to sign contracts that no thinking adult would sign. This allows a record label to exploit ‘this year’s model’ for all they are worth until they reach the end of their contract and want to renegotiate for decent terms. Then they simply replace them with another teen idol. The simplicity of the music has allowed the major labels to treat recording artists like ‘temp workers’.”
I also concur with the causes of death: “The internet has turned into a Cyber-Somalia….” “Music piracy killed record sales so that made it impossible for music publishers to recoup the advances they paid songwriters….” In addition, record labels using controlled composition clauses within record contracts have manipulated down the statutory rate paid out to songwriters.
Where Carnes and I conceptually differ is in solving the problem. It’s not that I don’t believe in the merit of solutions that both Carnes and Castle advocate, I honestly can’t fathom what seems to me like trying to spin the world the other way. I’m far too ignorant (even after reading Chris Castle’s blog for a year) to wade into a debate with the ‘free culture’ nuts advocates; copyright law is a sleeping pill to me; ending file sharing somehow seems like shoveling shit against the tide while playing whac-a-mole; and moving Congress is an act of…moving Congress.
My “arrogant and self-serving” (another quote form Carnes ☺) and oversimplified analysis and solution is as follows (see diagram below): In the past, a songwriter wrote a song (a); a pile of revenue was generated from music sales and royalties (b) and then split accordingly; and another pile of revenue was generated from (c) other things (t-shirts, tickets, appearances and so on).
With the way the world seems to be undeniably going, the first pile of revenue (b) is either disappearing or being lumped into the second pile of revenue (c) thanks to 360 deals and other contractual arrangements (read Castle’s entire post).
What’s seemingly obvious from my perspective is that (a) still gets you (c). I don’t care how much celebrity manufacturing you throw at an artist, the better (a) is…the bigger (c) will be. Great songs generate piles of money; undeniably, it’s the piles that are shifting.
As I said above, fighting for (b) is far too arduous and complicated for my head. I just want to find a way to connect (a) and (c) together simply and today.
Here’s my solution: nobody has ever known for sure what the present value of song (a) is, as investing in songs has always been pure speculation. My friend Ralph says: “Songs are like oil wells. You drill a lot of dry holes, but occasionally you find a gusher.” However in today’s almost-free music marketplace, the gushers are further apart and nobody knows what’s going to come out of the wellhole. So it’s only logical that nobody wants to pay much for (a), when (c) is such an unquantifiable quantity?
What seems to make sense would be to enable songwriters to sell future options where bidders purchase (today) the right to pay a set price (determined by the songwriter) in the future. Songwriters would auction these future payment rights along with all the rights and income streams legally attached to the song. Buyers would be obligated to make future payments (prices predetermined by the songowner and most likely escalating) at set intervals. Buyers would lose all rights, including the right to perform (if I had it my way), if a payment was missed. It even seems like this could be done on either an exclusive or non-exclusive basis.
If a song is a dry wellhole, the purchaser simply ceases to make payments. If a song is a gusher, the purchaser happily makes every payment on time.
Once again, my knowledge in this area is limited, and this idea may not even be novel? Moreover, this brainstorm may require scrapping everything in place today; if that’s the case, we may as well go back to fighting for (b), which is probably a lost cause. What do you think? Is there another solution outside of trying to claw back (b) from the maw of the Internet and the self-interests of big labels?