Time to Organize Recording Artists

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

This week, an independent study of Internet users published in the New York Times, found that only 42% paid for their music – either by buying a CD, or buying a download. The other 58% of the American population engaged in peer-to-peer downloading, or burning tracks from others CD’s, or ripping tracks from their friends computers. Those options offer no financial compensation for the musicians’ work.

If ever there were a time, when all good musicians should come to the aid of their party, it’s now. But wait! There is no Musicians’ Party. In fact, there’s not one single organizing body that has been able to uphold the rights of musicians on the Internet. Not one body has convinced a court of law or Congress that musicians have the right to be paid for their efforts anytime their music is played. If that right had been granted, artists would be receiving financial benefit from peer-to-peer file transfers, from mp3 blogs, from CD burning and from other similar exchanges.

Why has no one been able to make a difference? The answer is musicians are just not well organized. The American Federation of Musicians, or AF of M has been the union of record for musicians for over 100 years. They currently protect the rights of their membership – mostly Broadway stars, jingle writers, studio musicians, composers and members of orchestras. The union is partial to musicians who work in union venues and pay union dues. So the AF of M will protect a musician’s pay for television performances. They will make sure that a major label pays scale in the studio. And if the artist needs a visa, they’ll help orchestrate that. But when it comes to collective bargaining for payment of music traded on the Internet, it’s as if the union is waiting for somebody else to solve the problem.

Everyone knows that if these were television writers, not musicians, picket lines would be forming right now. But this is rock ‘n roll, the unruly step child of the creative industry. Somehow, musicians have bought into the identity crisis.

ASCAP, the performing-rights society representing songwriters and composers, announced a musicians’ bill of rights last week. Among other things, the bill advocates the authors’ right to compensation, and demands that the government vigorously protect the rights of their creative works.

If you walk into a business, and hear music playing, chances are very good that the business is paying ASCAP or one of the other performance-rights organizations, for the right to play music. These organizations protect the public use of music in a profit-making business. If you walk into a restaurant, nightclub or boutique and hear music playing, chances are very good a performance-rights organization have demanded compensation. These rights societies literally go door-to-door to insure their members get paid for music. But no performance-rights organization has successfully monetized peer-to-peer file sharing, mp3 blogging, ripping music collections or burning CD’s. And when 58% of your work is given away without your consent, that's not good business.

In reality, it’s going to take a lot more than proclamations to appropriately compensate working musicians for their efforts. What is needed is a body of musicians, fighting for musicians, that can bargain collectively for their benefit. Recording artists, willing to stand before Congress and argue why the current laws are unfair to the ever growing creative community.

Until then, recording artists will continue to watch compensation for hard work decline by the sea change created by digital advancements.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.