Musicians, Labor, and COVID19

David Arditi

University of Texas at Arlington

When states and localities shutdown all gatherings over 10 people, the impact was devastating on musicians’ lives and many supporting workers in the entertainment industry. However, I can’t help but think how things would be different if recording artists were employees of record labels.

When a musician signs a record contract, they sign away their copyrights in exchange for an advance on royalties. That advance needs to be paid back before they ever see a dime from the sale of their music. For all intents and purposes, they work for their record labels, but they are not considered workers: they are contractors. Musicians remain independent small businesses who contract with labels to provide a service. Under this system, labels do not owe musicians anything as workers. It is up to recording artists to market themselves and generate sales. Many recording artists have described the system as sharecropping.

Today, most artists have what’s called a 360 deal, also known as a “multiple rights deal.” These deals move beyond the typical contract that focus solely on recording rights to include touring, merchandise, an artist’s likeness, and publishing—or 360 degrees of their rights. Under these arrangements, labels provide larger advances, but require artists to pay them back through all streams of revenue.

During the COVID19 lockdown, this puts the problems of this sharecropping system into full view. Recording artists had their shows, tours, and festivals shutdown. Of course, they can still sell/license records online, and since record label business primarily comes through streaming, labels will continue to generate as much as revenue as before. But the lost revenue for artists from cancelled shows will be monumentally painful for artists and their teams.

My proposal: make recording artists workers.

Where would the tip jar be if musicians were “recording artists workers” ?

Since most artists already provide 360 degrees of their rights, this arrangement would ensure worker’s rights for musicians. The following criteria would work for musicians:

  1. Waged employment
  2. Employee benefits
  3. Unemployment benefits
  4. Freedom to change employers
  5. They can negotiate what (if any) copyrights they retain.
  6. Labels would have control over touring and promotional decisions. Their musicians would just show up and perform to secure their salaries.

How would this change circumstances during the lockdown?

  1. Musicians would earn a salary.
  2. They would have health insurance provided by these large companies. And feel secure in being able to receive treatment during these uncertain times.
  3. Record labels could lay them off, furlough them, or retain them on their rosters. If they lose their employment for any length of time, they would be eligible for unemployment.
  4. If a label decided to cut artists on their rosters, those artists would be able to take jobs at other labels. This would force labels to think twice about firing their most important frontline employees.
  5. If they retain copyright from the arrangements, they could continue to receive royalties for their music.
  6. Most importantly, record labels would be forced to figure out how to make up losses in the live music industry instead of artists.

These proposals represent a sweeping change from the current conditions. Record labels, and most popular artists, would be opposed to these changes. This is a starting point to begin discussion about changing the gig economy.


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