For years recording artists and the executives who promote their work have had a love-hate relationship.
Executives at recording companies, which make billions of dollars a year distributing music on compact discs and in other formats, say their business is risky and they should be compensated for taking chances on young talent. Recording artists, for their part, have long grumbled that companies are too controlling, lining their pockets by exploiting musicians unschooled in business.
Now, while the debate in the music industry has focused on how recording companies should deal with the public online, the controversy has also reheated long-simmering tensions between musicians and executives. And some artists are taking advantage of the public’s interest in online music rights to pursue the musicians’ own agenda – protesting what they describe as years of bad faith by the recording industry.
A handful of recording artists, including the singer Don Henley, a former member of the band the Eagles, will be in Washington on Tuesday for Senate hearings on intellectual property rights in the online era. For Mr. Henley, these hearings are just the beginning of a campaign to influence lawmakers on the issue of artists’ rights. His organization, the Recording Artists Coalition, successfully lobbied Congress last year to withdraw legislation that would have allowed recording companies to permanently own artists’ master recordings.
“Artists have been able to organize for every cause under the sun, but themselves,” Mr. Henley said in an interview last week. “But things have come to a boiling point. When something as revolutionary as the Internet comes along, it allows for the discussion of other issues – like unfair practices – to be expanded.”
Already the music industry is buzzing about a lawsuit that the rock musician Courtney Love recently filed against Vivendi Universal, demanding an end to the industrywide practice of offering only long- term contracts. Ms. Love’s suit was in response to one filed last year by Vivendi, which as the owner of the Universal Music Group labels that include Geffen Records and Mercury Records is one of the largest global recording companies. Vivendi had sued Ms. Love and her band, Hole, for breach of contract, saying she tried to terminate her seven-year contract without delivering five recordings still owed to the company. Vivendi has asked for millions of dollars in damages.
Ms. Love’s countersuit argues that the standard contract that artists are offered in the recording industry would be deemed unfair in other professions. She says she is also trying to expose accounting practices that she says cheat artists out of millions of dollars.
Industry analysts said such a lawsuit might not have commanded as much attention a few years ago. In fact, most previous disputes – including one between Mr. Henley and Geffen Records – have been settled privately, with artists renegotiating their contracts instead of going to court.
But Ms. Love’s suit comes at a time when the Napster battle has helped put the recording industry on the public relations defensive. As one record executive recently put it: “We are like tobacco companies. No one really likes us.”
Industry executives say that if Ms. Love succeeds she could accomplish what the actress Olivia de Haviland did in 1945 when she sued Warner Brothers Pictures over its long-term contracts. The outcome of that suit, in which the court ruled that it was illegal to force an artist to be bound to one studio for years, was effectively the beginning of the end of the Hollywood studio system as actors were allowed to become free agents.
Vivendi Universal dismissed Ms. Love’s claims, saying in court documents that she had willingly signed her contract and that her lawsuit was “on its face a bad faith, frivolous, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attempt to attract media attention.”
Whether bad faith, righteous or on some moral middle ground, Ms. Love’s effort may strike a chord with some members of the public who are beginning to demand that music companies justify their costs in the post-Napster era.
Artists’ recent activism may be partly a reaction to the notion that it is the fans who are now driving the debate over music’s future. Artists are speaking out now because their concerns are not being addressed, , said Jim Griffin, a former record executive who is now chief executive of Cherry Lane Digital, a digital entertainment company in Los Angeles. “An 18-year-old has more say than they do about their future.”
Myles Davis, a music industry analyst at Morgan Stanley in New York, said the recording companies feel besieged. “The music industry has existed in its own world for so long,” he said. “Now people are questioning, ‘Why can’t you just change?’ I believe they are in a period of complete and utter confusion.”
The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the record companies, has embarked on a lobbying and public relations campaign to defend the industry’s sullied image. “There is this perception that recording executives view artists as a commodity and are only in it for the money,” said Hilary Rosen, chief executive of the association. “If we are not out there telling our story, the story gets written for us in an unflattering way.”
If recording executives have an image problem now, analysts and industry experts say they have only themselves to blame. For years they have kept music fans at arm’s length, leaving it to retailers to manage the customer relationships while the recording companies concentrated on promoting artists and producing discs. But all that changed when free online music started tipping the balance of power toward the listeners.
Critics say the industry is hindered by a leadership vacuum and that record executives have grown defensive – and are unprepared to harness consumer-friendly technology and unable to articulate a vision of their business future. Right now, the recording business is about cost saving, said Michael Nathanson, a media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. “It’s become a factory.”
That is what the artists are protesting. Mr. Henley acknowledges that musicians have tried to organize before but have failed, largely because their interests are too varied. Name-brand artists may feel shackled, but garage bands may be all too happy for a chance to wear the golden handcuffs.
“I’m old enough to know it’s an uphill battle,” said Mr. Henley, who is 53. “But I’ve never seen such hostility bordering on contempt from the highest echelons of the corporate world toward the musician. I don’t know if we are going to be successful, but we are going to bring up some issues.”