Singing For Your Supper

So I’m sure you guys have all heard about this by now, but recently a woman from Minnesota was fined $1.9 million for downloading music when a court ruled in favor of the RIAA. How many songs, you ask? Surely in order for someone to get that huge a fine they must have been a pretty hardcore file sharer or downloader. We’re talking hundreds, maybe even thousands of songs here, right?

Try 24. As in, two dozen. The number of hours in a day. The real name of that show I like to call the Jack Bauer Power Hour. The Number 23 plus one. Two sets of 12 Angry Men. Kobe Bryant’s new uniform number.

So for every song this woman downloaded, she was charged about $80,000. God, what was she thinking? She could have bought 80,000 songs on iTunes for the price of one song she downloaded.

Now look, I understand that these are trying economic times. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and AIG all needed government-issue bailouts. American automakers such as GM and Chrysler have declared bankruptcy. And record sales are lower than ever thanks to a number of things — the rise of iTunes, file sharing, the fact that most mainstream music is total crap, and so on. But is this really the best way for the RIAA to end the fiscal year in the black? By suing random people for more money than they’re worth? Who does the RIAA think they are, the Sherriff of Nottingham?

People who oppose file sharing and downloading talk all the time about how people who do it are ripping off the artists. But here’s the thing. You know who rips them off even worse? The record labels themselves. I can still remember watching Behind The Music back in the day, and they had that episode about TLC where Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes explained how they ended up filing for bankruptcy after selling ten million copies of CrazySexyCool:

LEFT EYE: This is how a group can sell ten million records and be broke, and everyone get ready to do your math. Okay, there are 100 points on an album. TLC had seven. Every point is equal to eight cents, all right? Seven times eight is 56 cents. That means every time an album gets sold, TLC gets 56 cents. So 10 million records is $5.6 million.

NARRATOR: That’s the addition. Now here’s the subtraction. From that $5.6 million, the girls were contractually obligated to pay back both their record and production companies for expenses incurred on their behalf, including recording, travel, promotion, and music videos.

LEFT EYE: So LaFace Records had to spend about $3 million on the second album, so that automatically gets deducted from the $5.6 million before we can see a penny. Now we have $2.6 million left to split between the three of us. Well, guess what? When you have that much money, you’re in about the 47, 48, 49 percent tax bracket, so that immediately gets deducted to $1.3 million.

NARRATOR: Then subtract the percentages paid to managers, lawyers, and accountants. After generating millions of dollars in profits, TLC’s attorney says Tionne, Lisa, and Chilli each took home about $50,000 a year in 1993 and 94.

NARRATOR: Making matters worse, the girls were deeply in debt. Each of them owed over a half-million dollars to Pebbitone [their management and production company at the time] and more than $100,000 each to LaFace Records.

And that’s if you’re lucky enough to sell ten million records. I mean, I’m no huge fan of TLC or anything, but that’s fucked up. And they’re not alone in this. Remember how Hawthorne Heights sued their label a few years ago? Part of the reason they did that was because Victory Records had allegedly made $10 million in profit from their record sales but still claimed the band owed them a million bucks. The other part was because they were pissed off about CEO Tony Brummel telling the street team to hide copies of the new Ne-Yo album, which was released the same day as their album If Only You Were Lonely, so Hawthorne Heights would debut at #1. (The band eventually dropped the lawsuit and stayed with Victory to release their next album, Fragile Future.)

Frankly, Steve Albini explained all this stuff better than I could a long time ago in an article called “The Problem With Music.” He describes a scenario where a band ends up $14,000 in debt after selling a quarter-million copies. Sometimes I wonder if this explains most of the crap on the radio and MTV today — artists who really need to make some money to pay off their debts, so they make an album that resembles the current trends because they know it’ll sell and possibly help toward that. So naturally, the rest of us see that happening and we call them sellouts. But it’s not like they have much of a choice, is it? It’s either sell out or go bankrupt, and they’d really like to eat. It’s pretty much the epitome of a sadistic choice. Sacrifice your artistic visions and values to pay your debts, or stick with them and sink deeper into debt.

This is probably as big a reason for the dreaded second-album slump as anything else. In Albini’s article, the hypothetical band is already pretty deep in the hole and the label wants them to spend even more time and money to make the next album. In other cases, the band might be rushing something out the door to try and recoup, and of course it won’t be as good as the first album because they were able to take their time with it. It’s like the saying goes, “You have your whole life to make your first album and six months to make your second.”

So how can we resolve all this? The Internet provides some interesting potential, and artists like Radiohead and especially Nine Inch Nails have been exploring that potential over the last few years. Everyone remembers the In Rainbows “pay-what-you-want” experiment, though I’m actually kind of partial to what Trent Reznor did for Ghosts I-IV. He offered a portion of it for free, so if you liked it you could buy the whole thing for a lower price than you’d be paying at a Best Buy or FYE. He also offered special-edition packages that cost more money, but you got more bang for your buck. And all of it goes directly to the band.

Of course, such an idea works best when you’re in a band like Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails that’s been around for a while and has gained a sizeable and (most importantly) loyal fan base that’s willing to pay for your work. It’s a lot easier for a guy like Trent Reznor to make money as a “free agent,” so to speak, than it is for some anonymous kid like me who writes songs as a hobby. Nine Inch Nails started out on a major label, allowing them to get widespread promotion which lead to the cultivation of said sizeable and loyal fan base. A new band releasing their album online might not be as fortunate in such endeavors.

So what’s a new band to do? One option would be to sign with a label and stick around for a few albums, long enough to at least get a fan base, then go independent when the contract is up and basically follow Trent Reznor’s footsteps from there. Or maybe if they send it to well-known music sites like Pitchfork and they give it a good review, the band could attract a lot of fans looking all over for it because Pitchfork liked it and the review made them curious. Or you could always call some big-time record stores and ask them to carry your album.

Take Cymbals Eat Guitars, for example. They aren’t signed to any labels. There are only about 31 record stores worldwide where you can find a physical copy of Why There Are Mountains. (You can, however, find it at Insound. It’s also available on iTunes and Amazon.) Their album’s been getting rave reviews from just about everywhere, including (you guessed it) Pitchfork, who gave it their coveted Best New Music seal of approval. All the positive buzz is bound to get people interested in a band, which means if you’re good enough and you’re smart enough, then doggone it, people are going to like you. And really, isn’t that the way it should work? All you have to do is be a good band and you can succeed! Plus, since bands tend to make most of their money from touring and merchandise sales, these guys could actually end up in decent financial shape without any help from major-label promotion machines.

Maybe this, more than anything else, is the reason why the RIAA is freaking out over downloading. If a band like Cymbals Eat Guitars can literally come out of nowhere and do well without a record deal, who’s to say more unsigned artists won’t be trying to self-release their music? Then you’ve got popular artists like Nine Inch Nails flying the coop and making lots of money that goes directly to the artists themselves, showing that well-known musicians can thrive on their own without a label. Add the decrease in record sales and the rise of online downloading and digital sales on iTunes, and you can see why the record companies appear to be in panic mode. Someday, their way of doing business could be a thing of the past. And even record executives need to eat once in a while.

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