Music Meets Activism: “Artists’ Pay for Radio Play” Event At Le Poisson Rouge (NY)

Content Creators Coalition flierDate: February 25, 2014
Venue: Le Poisson Rouge (NY)

Review by Dawoud Kringle

On Tuesday, February 24th, Le Poisson Rouge played host to an important event which was sponsored by the NY chapter of the Content Creators Coalition. One that may well be a landmark in the unfolding of the way that the music business is conducted.

There is, to be blunt, a very serious problem with the business side of music (one of many, actually). Radio broadcasters in the United States are required by law to pay only songwriters, not the performers on the recording. To illustrate, when a hit song is played on the radio, the airplay makes money for their writers but not their most famous performers whose indispensable contribution actually generated sales. Federal laws were passed in the 1990s guarantee royalties to performers from online streams. The United States remains almost alone in the world for not paying this “performance right,” as it is known, on terrestrial radio. The only other countries that follow this model are Rwanda, China, Vietnam, Iran, and North Korea.

This seems to be the standard business model in the US: steal from the artist, and then add insult to injury by insisting the artist continue to work for nothing, because it’s good “exposure.” It is clear, and impossible to deny, that those who are in control of the music business have nothing but contempt for musicians. It isn’t even hate: they don’t hate us anymore than they hate the chicken they ate for dinner the other night. This is the real opinion they have of us. We are livestock to them. Personally, I can’t imagine anything more humiliating.

It is encouraging as well as inspiring that decisive action is being taken.

The event started at 7pm. The house lights went down, the stage lights came on, and after a long pause, Chris Ruen (author of Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity)  and Marc Ribot came on and opened the evening. There was some discussion about the nature of the music business in the US, and how artists are essentially being left out of their rightful percentage of billions of dollars of revenue their work generates. Ribot rightfully declared that we must and will not consent to being used to further agendas that not only don’t serve us but also are ruining our social and ecologic environment. Ribot’s statement that “If you think you can suck $15 billion out of an industry without someone being hurt” was an accurate summation.

A video speech by Rosanne Cash was shown. She discussed how musicians are being scammed out of millions. She mentioned how her Spotify royalties totaled $150; despite making an indeterminable amount for for Spotify itself through large numbers of sales.

The evening had many musical performances. The songs that were performed were all songs that had made money for some, and yet those who had made them famous didn’t see a dime.

Jennifer Charles (co-founder of Elysian Fields) did the first musical performance supported by Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog. She did The Trogg’s “Wild Thing” (written by Chip Taylor). Clearly a loose jam, the band approached it from a retro/garage band sense of fun.

After a short speech about huge importance of the audience taking part in this political and economic process, Steven Reker did “Hanging on the Telephone” (Written by the Nerves, made famous by Blondie.) supported by Ceramic Dog.  Shades of CBGB, indeed.

Kevin Erickson of the Future of Music Coalition came on and spoke of media deregulation and how radio had been ruined.

Up next was Dan Penn and Chips Moran’s “Dark End of the Street,” (made famous by James Carr, also recorded by the Flying Burrito Brothers) beautifully performed by Tift Merritt, supported by Ceramic Dog and Marilyn Carino (Mudville), Mike Mills (REM) and David Byrne were among the backup singers.

Mark Ribot joined Ruen, and they discussed exploitation of musicians in the digital age: and how this actually affects everyone. They eloquently explained how we are all in the same situation and the injustices affect everyone, including the audience.

Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, came up to discuss financial insecurity for musicians; and how opportunities for musicians are dwindling. She mentioned among other things how Ken Burns‘ jazz documentary had a $12.8 million budget, and how each if the musicians interviewed were paid $250 each. If they were actors in a Hollywood blockbuster, they wouldn’t even approach a lunch meeting to hear the proposal for this. This is, by any interpretation, an insult. The producers of Burns’ documentary clearly have NO RESPECT for the musicians whose lives and music they made millions documenting.

A video of Jason Moran was shown next. Moran did “Body and Soul.” Ribot introduced it, and asked to consider that nobody who recorded or performed an interpretation of the song ever made a penny. Moran’s interpretation was beautiful, and brought a wondrous life into the very familiar tune.

The next song, written by written by Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, was produced by Penn, and made famous by James & Bobby Purify, “I’m Your Puppet”, was performed by Mike Mills and Marylyn Carino. They did it in a very classic folk rock style.

Ribot then introduced Andrew Schwartz, executive of American Federation of Musicians (AFM). He pledged the AFM’s support for the Content Creators Coalition. They showed a video of AFM president Ray Hair, who echoed Schwartz’ sentiment.

The next song (written by Bobby Capo and made famous by Desi Arnaz) was “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.” performed by John McCrea of CAKE (supported by Ceramaic Dog and Takuya Nakamura) in a lounge/rock manner, it was straight out of a Quentin Tarentino soundtrack.

Next up was Melvin Gibbs. He spoke from the perspective of the musicians, the band members and their situation. He mentioned a song he’d played bass on for a Disney release (and Disney got boos, hisses, and one man who called out “death to the infidels!”). He wouldn’t say what he was paid. But he said that people tend to denigrate musicians who are broke; assuming they blew all their money. The reality is that they were never paid in the first place (or if they were, they were never paid nearly what their work is worth). He also mentioned that every country in the world pays the musicians, except the US.

The next musical performer was by David Byrne. The song he did, written by Freddy Scot and popularized by Biz Markie, was “You Say He’s Just a Friend.” Byrne trying to rap was an incongruous spectacle; yet he kinda-sorta pulled it off with his own inimitable style. It was a little weird though.

The event ended with everyone coming on stage. After thanking everyone, they played a satirical metal song called “Masters of The Internet.”

The rally exposed a great many injustices about the way the business is structured, and attempted to begin laying the groundwork for an alternative.

Many interesting questions were brought up. And some questions remain unaddressed. For example, how would new laws and legislation affect up and coming artists who have little or no means to generate hits? If, say, a local singer hired a pianist to play on a session, would the singer be beholden to the pianist for payment from any sales revenue beyond what was agreed upon in the beginning? Where does one draw the line between what a small indie artist can afford, and what a session musician or cover performer be paid beyond the initial payment for the performance and contribution?

Photo by Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi

Photo by Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi

I would mention that the main thing that must be considered is that we have effectively defined the problems in the business. The music business is self-destructing. It is based on a business model that is utterly unworkable, and it has no future. What we need to concentrate on now is what to replace it with. It’s one thing to hack away at the horrible monster that is the music business. But there is also the fact that a replacement for the obsolete music model has yet to be built and enacted.

Fortunately, there are groups of activists who are doing something. DooBeeDooBeeDoo NY as a media outlet, and bands/musicians like Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi, SoSaLa, Blake Morgan (a musician who is not part of the coalition but has started his own grass-roots campaign over radio royalties, I Respect Music, which has resulted in a petition with nearly 10,000 signatures and support on Twitter) and the Trichordist’ s David Lowery (Artists For An Ethical and Sustainable Internet, #StopArtistExploitation) are all uniting to work toward these objectives. The author of this article, (as a solo performer, and as leader of Renegade Sufi) has pledge support to the movement, and has in the past experimented with alternative venues and performance methods, with the objective of achieving autonomy from the standard music business model. Justice for Jazz Artists (J4JA), Enough Is Enough NY, and others within the Local 802 Musician’s Union are doing something about this. David Byrne, Wendy Oxenhorn, Marc Ribot, Jason Moran, and others are on board and have pledged their support.

There is an old saying: power respects power. Musicians need to put effort into the acquisition of power. Ultimately, in all our discussions, negotiations, and examination of the problem, there is one fact that keeps reappearing and refuses to go away: we don’t need exposure: WE NEED TO GET PAID!!!