Artists Fight Back

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

John McCain has not had a good year with musicians. First John Mellencamp objected to having his music used at McCain support rallies. Then Jackson Browne sued McCain for putting his song, Running on Empty, without permission in an advertisement against Barak Obama. Van Halen registered their objection after McCain added a track to his rally-song playlist. And just last week, the band Heart sent a cease-and-desist letter to John McCain and the Republican Party for using their hit, Barracuda at the National Republican Convention.

At first, I might have written off the mistake to negligent McCain staffers, but after the second incident, much less the fourth, there's little doubt in the intention. Unless McCain wants more negative press from the creative community, he should be wary of trampling on the intellectual rights of recording artists. Celebrities do not like having their work affiliated with organizations they obviously do not support.

And speaking of no support, the record business story of the summer was that Kid Rock has sold almost 2 million copies of his year-old CD, Rock ‘n' Roll Jesus, without selling one track on iTunes. The Kid Rock story became front-page news after a single, titled “All Summer Long,” became a hit at rock radio. The track has unbelievable familiarity. Kid Rock samples the most famous parts of Lynyrd Skynyrd's, "Sweet Home Alabama" and Warren Zevon's, "Werewolves of London" into the song. I'm betting Kid Rock asked for permission to use the music.

Kid Rock's no-show appearance at iTunes was intentional. He's never sold his music on iTunes. Neither have AC/DC or The Beatles. None of these established acts have wanted their music sold track by track. They want it to be sold as full-album downloads only, so fans will experience the complete creative vision of their work. Cynics say they are being greedy, since full-album downloads are far more profitable, but in reality, these well known artists are risking a lot to make a point. Their point is that digital-track sales are selling the music market short.

At Apple's latest product unveiling yesterday, Steve Jobs announced that iTunes was the #1 retailer of music in all formats. That means iTunes has beat out Walmart, Amazon, Best Buy and everyone else in selling music. With over 160 million iPods now in the marketplace, and 73% of the music-hardware penetration, there's no way iTunes isn't highly profitable. Don't let anyone sell you that idea. While the balance sheets for iTunes may be accurate, the real profit for iTunes is in the sale of the iPod, which is sold under a separate division of Apple. And Apple shares not a penny of the sale of their iPods with the artists or the record labels. So Apple uses 99¢ downloads to lure customers to buy $200 iPods, which is what makes the company profitable. It's that simple. Some artists are starting to pay attention to the numbers.

Next week, I'll examine several lawsuits presented by major artists to record labels that challenge a record label's right to offer digital music for sale to anyone. Stay tuned. It's going to get more interesting.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Banner image: Kid Rock