The music industry has been undergoing massive change: Consumers have practically forsaken retail and physical media in favor of digital downloads and music labels still can’t understand how to embrace digital music or how its shared.
And now the Recording Industry Association of America (these are the same people that issue gold records) must wrestle with a new copyright law that will decide if the record labels – or the artists – actually own the hits and for how long.
Copyrights and Wrongs
The law was established in 1978 and will take effect in 2013. It’s a dense piece of legislation, but it comes down to a 1976 music copyright law and court ruling that says after a period of 35 years, artists could take legal action to get their master recordings back from the music labels that originally “published” them as singles or albums.
The reason, according to that ruling: Music companies are far more business-minded than artists, and have an automatic business advantage when dealing with artists. Therefore, after a set period of time, artists should get a second chance at negotiating a good deal for their creations.
As you might guess, the idea of artists regaining their original music isn’t too popular with music labels.
So what’s the big deal? After all, we’re talking about records that are 35 years old; today’s music is centered around Pop and Rap. However, that period of time produced an enormous wealth of very popular music (including Classic Rock, Punk, New Wave and Disco classics). Many of these songs are still popular today, and have seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to Rock Band, soda commercials, Glee and American Idol.
These songs become even more significant when you think that a record label may depend on them year after year for profits still generated by older albums sales, like The Eagles’ Hotel California. One label estimated that 90 percent of its current sales come from its back catalog. But many artists are ready to go after the labels very aggressively to regain the rights to their recordings.
Bruce Springsteen, spent nearly a year engaged in a similar court wrangle back in the mid-70s after he had signed away the rights to his songs to an early manager. (Springsteen’s early deal was so bad that if he had written an autobiography during the time, he wouldn’t have legally been allowed to quote lyrics from his own songs.) Springsteen was actually prevented from recording during his lengthy trial but eventually won his case. When he returned to the studio, he made one of his finest albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Ironically, that 1978 masterwork is one of the albums that could be affected by the new 35-year copyright rules.
The Download Dilemma
Consumers love the digital-download format. It’s incredibly accessible, and device friendly. For their part, music labels have been extremely hesitant to shift their business to the digital frontier. While it may make sense (digital songs take labels out of the costly business of manufacturing and shipping physical product), the RIAA feels digital downloads encourage file sharing or music piracy, plus they can’t directly control digital downloads like traditional retail.
Some artists are so fed up with the current state of the music biz they have taken a “vow of silence.” Pop/funk genius Prince (who’s been recording since the late 70s) recently stated he would refuse to release any new music until the industry could get a better handle on its business and how it’s fighting piracy. “The industry changed,” Prince said in an interview with The Guardian. “We [artists] made money before piracy…Nobody’s making money now except phone companies, Apple and Google.”
Sure, iTunes has revolutionized music distribution, but while the RIAA or musicians may find fault with Apple or Napster, the truth is that musicians and the industry must work together to adopt new technologies (like “the cloud”) and be at the forefront of these changes instead of being led by them. Musicians too are discovering ways to distribute their own music and get a larger slice of the pie. The RIAA also needs to understand its methods of fighting piracy are doing more to turn people off to new music than introduce them to it.
In the case of the 1978 copyright law, smart record labels will make an effort to reach out to the artists in question and cut a deal with them to continue to distribute their music. However, most industry analysts predict that each individual case will have to be determined by legal verdict, which could result in lengthy court battles between artists and music companies for years to come.
The Beat Goes On
Any time a new recording technology emerges, older technology is largely abandoned. This happened in the 80s when CDs first appeared and vinyl albums stopped being produced. This happened to the 70s relic, the 8-track tape. 8-tracks were replaced by cassette tapes, and cassettes ultimately were replaced by CDs. Some of these formats come back into fashion. For example, vinyl records have seen a comeback of sorts in recent years, but for the most part the old always gives way to the new.
Are you passionate about filling the world with the sound of music? America’s popular culture – and particularly its music – still sets the tone for the rest of the world, and that’s why the recording industry will always need creative and talented people to develop new music. Many of today’s great music producers are starting when they’re young; now there are many ways to learn music production and get into the music industry. It may remain to be determined how it’s getting on your music player, but music is here to stay.
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