“Born to Run” – The False Dilemma of the Performance Rights Act, Part II

My earlier post on the  false dilemma governing the Performance Rights Act has provoked a substantial amount of (very welcome) reader response, so in the interests of fairness, I thought it best to perhaps give the issue some further consideration. What makes the battle over performance royalties so singularly lurid, I imagine, is that it remains, for the most part, a largely depoliticized issue. At a time when our heartfelt beliefs as liberals or as conservatives, like the world’s truest compass, tend to automatically orient us towards an appropriate reaction in any given conflict, here the extension of royalties to a certain group of individual musicians is, as I’d hinted before, a little bit grayer.

All the same, for all the attention I seemed to heap on the nuances largely ignored by both sides of the argument, it would, in fact, appear that I might have been too quick to parody Nancy Sinatra’s editorial without providing equitably scathing treatment of the radio conglomerates’ own absurdities. Allow me, if only briefly, to rectify that mistake. The NoPerformanceTax.org television advertisement that I referenced before is a walking (or at least talking) bundle of self-serving clichés. From the awkward stage entrance (“Aaaalllriiiight!”), to the forced yet summarily neutered profanity (“the record companies *bleep*ed up”), to the almost smirking caption, twenty seconds in, that reminds us “This Rocker Is An Actor,” the marketing strategies of the assembled radio networks are more than, as I’d said before, “desperately hip,” but outright insincere in their depiction of who a performance tax might actually injure. Precisely because he is anonymous, or at least because he isn’t Axl Rose, this anonymous poseur is meant to be a stand-in for the millions of local artists who might someday have a prayer of cracking commercial radio, provided they’re about as lucky as the 1% of college basketball players who manage to make it to the NBA. By claiming that “half that money is going to some suit overseas,” the radio stations cleverly skirt the fact that they are themselves “suits” of a different stripe. By having some breezy DJ voiceover as the leading promoter of their radio ads, the station owners take advantage of the fact that radio stations are primarily identified by their on-air personalities, and not those hundreds of guys outside of the sound booth.

And yet this is precisely the same misrepresentation pursued by the musicians themselves, who claim that the interests of enhanced performance royalties are served only by “artists” themselves, specifically, the same “little guys” that the radio folks lay claim to. musicFIRST, “a partnership of artists and organizations in the music community,” is the umbrella organization responsible for spearheading much of this legislation, and we might note that it’s that essential group, the “artists” who are listed first rather than the coalition’s other constituent members, the RIAA, SoundExchange, the Music Managers Forum, and a number of musicians’ interest groups all the way down (or up) to the Christian Music Trade Association. A nowhere near exhaustive list of that artists’ coalition (although a full list can be found here) would be found to comprise Celine Dion, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Christina Aguilera, Alanis Morissette, the band Chicago, and Donnie Van Zant, brother of Ronnie, the original vocalist of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Johnny, the guy who sings for them now. To be fair, many of these bands (Dave Matthews Band, Fall Out Boy, John Legend…Bruce Springsteen) are still in the prime of their careers and producing original material, and yet my earlier list is far more representative of the kinds of names willing to sign on to support artists’ royalties. Alanis Morissette continues to actively promote her music through live shows, and yet her last songs to secure widespread radio play were mainly cuts from her breakout album Jagged Little Pill fourteen years ago; since then, her most prominent musical offering has been an acoustic version of “My Humps.” Chicago, which is second only to the Beach Boys in terms of single and album sales from an American band, have released two original albums since 1991, and yet have never stopped actively touring since their formation in 1967 (oh, and wouldn’t you know it, Brian Wilson makes the list too). Donnie Van Zant has been in absolutely no bands of note (in fact, if you attempt to search for him on Wikipedia, you instead get referred to the profile for Johnny, even though D. does, in fact, have his own profile), yet as a beneficiary of brother Ronnie’s estate, certainly stands to benefit every time “Simple Man” or “Sweet Home Alabama” is played on the radio (hell, despite clocking in at nine minutes, “Free Bird” still gets played on the radio from time to time). Who don’t you see listed here? Talented artists who’ve been putting out records on sub-prime labels or without substantial radio promotion for years, people like Conor Oberst or The Flaming Lips or The Decemberists or Jack White (yes, Icky Thump was carried by Warner Bros., but you don’t exactly hear Raconteurs or Dead Weather singles on mainstream radio, do you?).

I could go on like this, listing the quasi-obsolete yet touring musicians most obviously likely to benefit from radio promotions on one side, and the notable absences on the other, but why? Obviously recording artists are immensely talented individuals, who obviously have an immense amount to do with any given song’s success, and who obviously want to reap the maximal benefit from their creations. But let’s perhaps provide some distance from the fact that we all love Christina Aguilera by performing something of a thought experiment. A couple of years ago, a professor of mine, who was also a well-known writer, sought to edit a collection of short stories (that happened to be grouped around a certain theme), with all proceeds going towards a specific charity. The last selection in my advance copy of the collection is James Joyce’s “The Dead,” coincidentally also the last story from Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). “The Dead,” did not, however, appear in the final copy of the collection released to the public. Why? Because the executor of Joyce’s estate, Stephen Joyce, refused to allow the story to be printed without extracting the estate’s normal royalties fee, despite the fact that the proceeds were all going to charity in the first place, and despite the fact that dozens of other, living writers, had voluntarily waved their own modest fees in support of the cause.

Now Stephen Joyce had merely inherited the mantle of Joyce’s estate in much the same way that Frank Sinatra inherited “My Way” from Paul Anka when Anka decided that the song wasn’t really suited for him. Just like singles played on the radio, publication of any of Joyce’s more digestible work would likely prove a boon to sales of the Dubliners collection as a whole, and perhaps serve as a suitable entrée to the other, nigh incomprehensible stuff. And likewise, in the same way that broadcast radio serves as a public good for anyone with a basic AM/FM tuner, the fact that Joyce’s story would be included in an entirely charitable collection was not enough to dissuade the person out to score additional royalties. Obviously this is an imperfect example, since radio stations, despite their contribution to the public, operate as a for-profit enterprise, but in either instance, we witness one group unable to cope with the fact that someone else might be momentarily benefiting from a creation entirely in spite of potential long-run benefit for themselves. Whether said group is represented by Stephen Joyce or by Nancy Sinatra or by the band America (quick!, tell me the most recent America single you’ve heard on the radio that wasn’t “A Horse with No Name”) is only a matter of degree, not kind.

As suggested before, the best solution for everyone involved, for radio outlets and for established and up-and-coming musicians alike, might be to simply change the ways in which music production is organized: placing more emphasis on the production of quality songs and EPs, and less on simply producing filler-laden records that fuel concert tour extravaganzas. Irving Azoff, former owner of Front Line Management and now CEO of Ticketmaster Entertainment, admits as much in that earlier mentioned (abstracted) New Yorker article, holding, with more than a little bit of nostalgia, that “The old business model was: put a single on the radio, put a video on MTV…That is gone.” As far as “suits” go, Azoff, who once represented the likes of Neil Diamond and the Eagles, is a veritable foot soldier of the established order (to bring my Star Wars metaphor back around, I’d say he’s “a veritable stormtrooper,” but that term’s probably a little too loaded; besides, he’d probably be more like one of the admirals on the Death Star), and yet even he admits that financial incentives have steered artists away from foremost producing quality music: “The way the industry is monetized has totally changed. The order used to be: first, records; second, live; third, merchandise. Now it’s: first, live; second, third-party sponsorship; third, merchandise; fourth, publishing; fifth, records.”

But hey, maybe this entire discussion will obviate itself at some point in the near future. As today’s Wall Street Journal reports, Radiohead has announced that 2008’s In Rainbows will have marked their final full-length album; from here on out, they will continue to produce smaller EPs and downloadable single releases (like this week’s “Harry Patch (In memory of)” which has been garnering a singular amount of media attention, in part thanks to distribution by the BBC, one of those awful media conglomerates we can’t wait to be rid of). Generating music in this form allows the band to focus their talents on a concentrated number of songs, while also lowering costs by cutting out some of the production and distribution middlemen. And, what’s more, early indicators would seem to find that fans are receptive to such methods of consumption.

It’s a brave, new, digital world. And maybe that’s why some of the old guard are running scared.

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