By Hans Ebert
Often- extremely often- one wonders if artists really know what’s happening to their music, and, more often than not, why nothing is happening to their music. Forget about all those travelling First Class with their army of lawyers wearing tight legal briefs and with the firepower to give windburn to anyone in their way. Plus, someone like Taylor Swift first came along before it all became so unnecessarily complicated and convoluted and where it’s easier to say just say No, because approving simple requests for something as basic as the approval to use a song might require actually doing some work, or the request is deemed too small to bother.
Small can become big as anyone who knows anything about size and how it doesn’t matter will tell you. But everyday all over the world, millions of small deals are nixed before they can go anywhere- before they can add up to something that might be able to keep the wolves at bay and help pay the rent.
Here’s where it’s hard to make sense of anything: the artist who actually created the work is left completely out of the loop as to what’s being decided about their art by those who have had nothing to do with it. They’re there with the lights off and with often zero communications with those who, at one time, were fawning at their feet to sign- to sign as recording artists and, separately, as songwriters. When did the wooing stop? That’s easy: the moment contracts were signed and one had made a pact with the devil. After that, all one heard were the sounds of silence and one hand clapping.
In many ways, by signing with them, music companies and music publishing houses had basically ensured that IF an unknown artist were to suddenly be a success, no one else could have them. As stupid as it might sound, there are very few music executives who can hear a hit. Or spot talent and know what might make a great sync deal. Not even many A&R guys. This is also why none of these fakirs actually go out of their way to help market artists. They don’t know how marketing works, especially in this day and age of social media that has been so badly abused, it’s become clutter and all creativity left the building long ago with Elvis munching on a cheeseburger. Those days of the music industry crackling with creativity, enthusiasm and inspiration started and ended with the pioneers of the music industry- real music guys like Chris Blackwell, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert who started A&M Records etc. It was a more simple time. It wasn’t only and all about the money. There was a good balance of reality and the unknown factor. We desperately need to return to those fundamentals of music- and why it’s produced.
Even today, some of the biggest names in music are fighting every day to get what’s rightfully theirs. And with monies thought to be owed for various Rights never coming, it’s why sixtysomething acts- especially Rock acts- have become embarrassing nostalgia acts for baby boomers who never grew up. There’s nostalgia and then there’s cheese and desperation.
All those corporate takeovers and takeovers of takeovers, again, with artists having no say, just don’t make sense. It’s offensive to think of Radiohead or McCartney working for the oafish Guy Hands, below, whose greatest hits before purchasing EMI Music was investing into nursing homes and upgrading toilets on the Autobahn.
This pudding boy was going to talk about music and the music of business and the industry’s changing landscape with Radiohead? Of course not. It’s why Radiohead left the music company as did McCartney and music executives who refused to become toadies. They were fortunate. Not so others. Those legally binding contracts are hard to unravel. Any contract signed for anything is hard to rewrite and explained as being a mistake. One moment of severe brain freeze. Yeah, choose your business partners cleverly. Even the Beatles found that one out the hard way. There are parasites in sheep’s clothing everywhere.
Every day, clients go with cap in hand and a certain degree of trepidation and resignation asking for permission to use music as part of a sync deal for a television commercial, perhaps a movie, or just to cover a track- a note for note cover version by one of their artists. The odds are that after months of waiting for an answer, it’s finally delivered. And the news is seldom good. Has this request not been approved by the artist or artist management or some gremlin in Publishing? No one knows. And no matter how many pontificate about “knowing the business” and the legal ties that bind, no one does. These are the wannabe deal makers way down the food chain. They’re has-beens. They’re the living embodiment of The Ballad Of A Thin Man.
Again, this approval process is not an exacting science. It’s made to seem this way and is often either guesswork or not caring enough to bother while the goalposts keep constantly being changed. The problem is that nothing is evolving. Artists are still having to chase for Royalty Statements, let alone the chump change cheques which are sent with the least amount of information.
The goalposts keep changing, and not for the better, simply because artists have allowed this to happen. They have not read the tea leaves, they have not asked the right questions and their work now belongs to someone else. There was too much trust and when in Itchycoo Park singing that everything is beautiful, one is travelling with the fairies and believing in happily ever afters and that everyone played by the same rules. Sign here- and here and here- you did and and you were locked in. But at that time, and when Peter Pan was guiding the Starship Enterprise, who knew what would come back to bite many on their collective asses?
Today, artists signs with someone who also manages the work of other artists- more important artists. When this happens, the lesser known or the complete unknown, like a rolling stone, is left with no direction of home, and has bo diddley squat in being part of the negotiations process. It might have even happened to someone as powerful as McCartney who once sang about only receiving those “funny papers” and how when it comes to negotiations, everything breaks down. He just wanted to find a way to get out of a mess and get back home.
Why have we got to where we are today when music streaming companies- and having recently met one of the prats running the biggest of these in Mainland China where the whiff of ego mixed with bollocks was suffocating- seemingly hold the keys to the kingdom? Why are music companies given a buffet of options by them as to how partnerships can be formed along with the one-sided payment methodology? Well, that’s easy. Take the money and screw over artists without anyone knowing.
During this process, depending on the status of the artist, everything is signed, sealed and delivered behind closed doors. A few years ago, a senior music executive with one of the majors was explaining to a group of us who had left the business how they worked with streaming companies. In a nutshell, it came down to receiving a huge lump sum for all their current hits with a few thousand unknowns thrown in as a bonus. It was and is one way traffic and where, again, the artists are in the dark.
This subject has to be taken to a higher court and where the lights are switched on and there’s full transparency. Forget all that fight for your rights crap. That’s just a hollow slogan. Artists today need to read up on the history of the music industry to understand why we’re now here like puppets, who’s pulling the strings, why we’re all being flim flammed and, hell, why we need someone slightly off centre like Christopher Walken to deliver us from evil. Artists need a weird bloody renegade like Walken on their side to scare the hell outta the goon squads being freely GIVEN all this power without even thinking twice as to what any of it means. Are we nutso?