When I worked as a music writer, one of the most fascinating things about the job was getting to see the business side of the music industry. While I met many people who genuinely believed in their company’s artists and did all they could to support them, I also regularly saw musicians and creative people get exploited. Even as a lifelong music fan, the scope and extent of this exploitation was a shock to me. Many artists’ contracts were astoundingly one-sided – and not in the artist’s favour – and it was very easy for artists to quickly get into financial trouble, even if they were successful and smart.
Those experiences left a lasting impression on me. During the contract negotiations for the first edition of my textbook, I asked questions that my publisher’s representative later told me he had never had an author ask before. I had to explain to him that after seeing things like all the “recoupable expenses” that record companies routinely deducted from artists’ earnings, I wanted to be absolutely sure of what kind of contract I was getting into. And I also wanted to have at least some chance to make money from my work.
I don’t hold any illusions that things have gotten any better for artists in the years since I wrote about music. Taylor Swift recently got a lot of attention for boycotting Apple’s new music streaming service when she found out it wasn’t going to pay artists during its first three months of operation. Good for her for speaking up – but there’s many, many other creative people who get ripped off and who don’t have the public profile or commercial power to demand fair treatment. Here’s two examples I recently encountered.
Example number one
Shindig is an excellent UK music magazine, focusing on semi-obscure (sometimes very obscure) bands from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as contemporary independent bands. In 2007, its founders, Jon “Mojo” Mills and Andy Morten, joined forces with a company called Volcano Publishing. Under their informal deal, Volcano managed the magazine’s business dealings and its distribution, while Mills and Morten were in charge of the editorial side of the magazine’s operations. But as time went on, things started to go bad between the two parties; earlier this year, Volcano fired Morten and Mills, and then rehired them as freelancers. And not too long after that, Shindig’s subscribers – including myself – were puzzled to suddenly receive in the mail a magazine called Kaleidoscope incorporating Shindig.
As described in this story, Morten and Mills had prepared a new issue of Shindig and had gone on vacation – and while they were away, Volcano took their editorial content, rebranded it, and launched an entirely new magazine.
However, Volcano had apparently not anticipated how loud and passionate music fans can be – particularly angry fans of music magazines about bands that get little or no attention anywhere else. There was a huge outcry about what Volcano had done to Shindig, and to Morten and Mills. Eventually Volcano agreed to close down Kaleidoscope, and Shindig has relaunched with a different publisher. In Mills’ words, “You’ve got to sign deals. You can’t just trust.”
Example number two
Guitarist Bill Nelson first achieved musical success as the leader of the 1970s band Be Bop Deluxe, which was signed to a subsidiary of EMI Records. After the band released its first record, the membership of the band completely changed except for Nelson. As detailed in this post from 2002, several years after Be Bop Deluxe broke up, Nelson started to wonder why he wasn’t getting royalty payments from EMI. He inquired and was told that the band’s records hadn’t made enough money to repay the advances the band had received. And he was told this even as the record company continued to re-release the band’s songs in compilations and as part of box sets.
After further enquiries by Nelson and his management, EMI claimed that it had indeed paid royalties from all of the band’s six albums….to the members of the first version of the band, who were only involved with the band’s first album. The musicians that worked on five of the band’s six albums had received nothing. EMI further claimed that it had not been able to locate Nelson to pay him his share of those royalties, despite his being the only member of the band to have a successful solo career. Then, when challenged, EMI claimed it had actually been paying royalties to the company set up as the band’s contractual agent. It then asserted that since that company no longer existed, it was not obliged to pay any more royalties. It did, however, offer to pay Nelson any future Be Bop Deluxe royalties, although it didn’t offer to reimburse him for the wrongly paid royalties.
Nelson consulted with lawyers, and was told that the costs of pursuing legal action would likely be greater than the value of any royalties he might recover – even if it were possible to prove that EMI miscalculated or mispaid the royalties, which would be difficult. In Nelson’s words, “After a 30 year professional life in music, it’s sickening to realize that I’ve been denied the fruits of the most commercially successful part of my career, thanks to the machinations of a huge, fabulously wealthy global company who prefer to make cheap excuses rather than say, ‘o.k., lets be fair, we made a mistake and we’ll reimburse you.’ It’s unethical, it’s mean and it’s cheap and nasty.”
These two examples aren’t stories of musicians and writers being willfully naive, or of not being vigilant about business affairs – these things just happened. And anyone in a creative or artistic job, or thinking of getting into one, needs to know that this is how badly they might end up being treated.
(If anyone wants to read more shameful stories of artist exploitation, I recommend Jen Trynin’s book Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, her first-hand account of her experiences as a musician signed to a major label, or Johnny Rogan’s book Starmakers and Svengalis, about famous and infamous managers in the British music industry.)