“Crooked as a dog’s hind leg.” That’s what my dad would say. When it comes to the music business, he wouldn’t be far from wrong. There are myriad stories of shady record deals, crooked managers, unscrupulous contracts, unpaid royalties, and bankrupt artists.
Stories of honest and honorable people in the record industry are few and far between. Record labels have stacked the deck against young musicians since the beginning. Artists, some with little or no formal education - and without adequate legal representation - often signed their works away for pennies. Contracts promised performers that royalties would be paid after expenses were recouped, but “creative” bookkeeping could always show that profits were never realized. It’s been said that Jimi Hendrix signed every contract offered him - and only saw enough money to keep him in the studio and on the road during his brief, brilliant career. In the fifties, Chuck Berry was thrilled to see his first single, “Maybellene,” hit the record stores, only to find that the 45 rpm single listed a “co-writer” who would receive fifty percent of Chuck’s songwriter royalties.
For the record labels, as well as the artists, the key to success has always been airplay, and of course, sales. Songwriters derive income solely from performances (radio, television, jukeboxes, live concerts, streaming) of their material. The song publisher’s income is derived from performances as well as from the sale of physical copies - records, tapes, CDs, and also downloads, referred to in the industry as mechanical royalties. The publisher owns the material, at least for a period of time. The songwriter may or may not share in the publishing. Paul McCartney, arguably one of the most savvy songwriter / artists, and certainly one of the richest, only recently acquired the publishing rights to The Beatles catalogue. The purchase price was not disclosed, but we can safely assume it was enough money to purchase a small country. Okay, so we know Paul hasn’t exactly suffered financially over the years, but consider this - for the last fifty-five years, he missed out on royalties from the sale of records of his compositions, whether it was The Beatles version, or any of the thousands of cover versions of his songs. That adds up to a lot of of dough, folks. You might remember Paul tried to purchase The Beatles catalogue in the 1980’s. Unfortunately, he had advised his friend, Michael Jackson, to invest in music publishing, and Jackson did just that - snapping up The Beatles catalogue from under McCartney's nose. Some friend, huh? But that’s the music business.
The record industry was always concerned with “bootlegs” - unauthorized copies of albums sold illegally - and rightly so. They were losing money, maybe not huge money, but enough to be annoying. Again, it was the artists and songwriters who suffered the most. But cheap vinyl and cassette copies of albums really didn’t sound that great. It was still worthwhile to fans to get that thirty-three-and-a-third long-playing album in their hands, slice up their thumb opening the cover, remove that shiny black plastic disc and put it on the turntable, sit back with a good pair of headphones and drift away, all the while admiring that great album cover art and liner notes. But, I digress… The digital age changed everything. Digital copies sounded as good as originals, and suddenly, with computer programs like Napster, anyone with a computer could obtain music for free. Yippee! Free music! But wait… The record industry went into a complete tailspin. Revenue dropped so significantly that major companies closed their doors forever, or were absorbed by corporate conglomerates. While “free music” was a horrible development for the industry, the real victims of illegal downloads were the artists and songwriters - the ones least able to afford the theft of their hard work. The plus side of the computer age, artists hoped, was the chance to market their music to their fans directly, online. After all, the internet offered equal opportunity for everyone, right?
Fast forward a few years… After much litigation, the illegal file sharing programs were shut down in the courts. Sales rebounded, but music continued to be more and more internet-based. Consumers began to turn increasingly to downloads, rather than CDs, and then to streaming, using programs like Spotify and Apple Music, rather than downloads. The problem with these services is that the performance royalties they pay to artists and songwriters are pitifully low. Yes, it is possible for a record to make money on Spotify - if one is able to generate many millions of streams. Only the the biggest stars are able to do this. Smaller artists, in the hope of gaining credibility and prestige, offer their music to Spotify but have little hope of commercial success. And it’s getting worse - according to an article about Spotify on Digital Music News. com, “… as more money is made from the music, music creators and copyright holders are making less… Mechanical royalty rates are continuing to decline…” In other words, as Spotify has grown into a billion-dollar company, they are paying out less to writers and publishers than ever.
In 2017, touting streaming as “the new radio,” the record labels (who are major shareholders in Spotify) have jumped on the streaming bandwagon in a big way, lobbying heavily to get their releases added to “Current Hits” playlists that garner the most streams. The “level playing field” independent artists hoped to have in marketing their music online is virtually disappearing before their eyes in the wake of corporate dominance.
This is a trend that really shouldn’t surprise anyone. Major corporations run the world today; equally, if not more so, than governments. I venture to say there is almost nowhere in the world without McDonalds, Starbucks, or Coca-Cola. Small, independent farms have all but disappeared, and chemical companies like Monsanto largely dictate the quality and healthfulness of what we eat, in the same way that mammoth corporate communications companies dictate what we watch, and listen to.
How do we respond to this? Well, the first thing is to realize that we have a choice. The little mom-and-pop hamburger joint around the corner, or neighborhood coffee shop is probably a good alternative. Weekly farmers markets are a great way to buy food that is local, in-season, organic and cheaper - because it didn’t have to be shipped half-way around the world. Let’s support local music - there was a story recently that Joshua Bell, the virtuoso violinist (who incidentally performs on a four million-dollar violin) busked incognito in the subway in New York City and made a grand total of… wait for it… thirty bucks. Really??? Come on folks, put down that bag of Cheetos, get off the couch, and go out to hear some live music. You can record that episode of “The Bachelor” and watch it later.
All of this is why I chose to market my music here - on my website, in my own little mom-and-pop store (see my blog on “The Making Of Goin’ To Clarksdale”) To those of you who have already bought the album, my heartfelt thanks. I hope you enjoy it.
To order Jon's new CD as well as personalized autographs,
visit the JONWALMSLEYMUSIC SHOP