The Eagles, Billy Joel, No Doubt, the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder and others are playing a series of benefit concerts the night before Wednesday’s Grammy Awards for a unique cause: each other.
The four Los Angeles concerts Tuesday, to benefit the Recording Artists Coalition, represent a shot across the bow of the recording industry from the people whose work it markets.
The artists are demanding new relations with record labels, including fairer contracts and more oversight of accounting practices.
“It’s time that the artistic community grows up,” said singer Don Henley, who urged artists not to ignore the business of music. “Artists have failed to realize what a profound effect the legislative process has, not only on their livelihood but the fate of their creative works.”
The protest concerts come during the recording industry’s toughest sales period since the post-disco bust two decades ago. At the same time, the labels are struggling to find a way to respond to the free downloading of music on the Internet.
The artists’ coalition was actually born two years ago during a battle in Washington over a change in copyright law. Henley, Sheryl Crow and others successfuly fought the change, which they believed would make it impossible for musicians to own their recordings.
Their opponent was the Recording Industry Association of America, the lobbying arm of record companies. Henley had supported the association before Congress in the past, but in recent years he finds the interests of record companies and artists more often at odds.
This time, the coalition is fighting to change a California law that prevents recording artists from terminating contracts after seven years. It also wants to be a watchdog for musicians as the digital era changes the way music is distributed.
And smelling vulnerability in the wake of the Enron case, Henley wants to hold hearings on record company accounting practices.
Henley’s hope is to make the artists’ coalition a trade group on par with the RIAA, an effort he concedes is going to take far more money than Tuesday’s shows can raise.
While each show has an impressive lineup, conspicuously absent are any rap, R&B or Latin artists – a sign of the trouble Henley has had increasing the coalition’s ranks beyond its current 140 members.
“It’s like pulling teeth,” he said. “The response that we’ve had has been alright, but it could certainly be better. We want everybody, every artist that is signed to a professional recording agreement, to join.”
The coalition frightens some music executives and angers others, Henley said.
Val Azzoli, co-chairman of The Atlantic Group of record labels, said he resents some of the successful artists involved in the coalition. Henley’s band, the Eagles, is among the biggest sellers in rock history.
Azzoli said the recording industry is much more equitable than it was in the past.
“If you have a hit album, you have more rights than you deserve,” he said. “If you have a hit album, you call the shots. We’re just servants.”
Besides, the group’s timing couldn’t be worse, he said.
The RIAA released statistics Monday saying there was a 10 percent decline last year in the number of CDs and other music shipped to merchants from the year before.
“Our timing couldn’t be better,” Henley countered. “You think they’re going to do something for us when times are good? We’ve tried to reason with them in times of prosperity. They really don’t listen then.”
He argued that fans could benefit if artists had more say in how music is priced and distributed. And he really gets burned up when people complain about rich rock stars fighting for more rights. He said that’s done to deflect attention from real issues.
Ten minutes after a telephone interview ends, Henley calls back to address the same question.
“They talk as if we were born rich,” he said. “I did well through hard work and dedication. So did most of my peers. If they paid us what they were supposed to pay us, we’d have a hell of a lot more money than we have now.”