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The MTP Interview: An Inconvenient Truth: Songwriters Guild President Rick Carnes talks about the effect of piracy on American songwriters

March 10, 2012 5 comments
[Ed: This post originally appeared on MTP on January 30, 2009–how little has changed

American songwriters are one of our greatest sources of culture as well as important contributors to America’s “soft power“–our ability to win hearts and minds around the world by attraction and not by force. As Professor Joseph Nye would say “Lennon trumped Lenin.” (See Center for Strategic & International Studies Smart Powerfavored by the Obama Administration in the “change” direction for U.S. foreign policy.)But Internet analysts, self-appointed futurists as well as self-annointed consumer advocates almost always misunderstand the role of songwriters and the negative effects that rampant piracy has had on them. People who just write songs don’t sell t-shirts, don’t play shows, don’t have all the other income streams available to them that the EFFluviati point to as subsititute revenues for the cruel theft of labor value by companies like Kazaa, Morpheus, Limewire and the Pirate Bay.You hear a lot of talk about “follow on” artists or “remix culture”? Songwriters are the ones who are most often “followed upon” and “remixed out of culture”. And as noted in this interview, there are fewer and fewer original professional songwriters around every year.Rick Carnes is the President of the Songwriters Guild of America, and is a tireless advocate for American songwriters on Captiol Hill. He lives in Nashville, the songwriting capitol of the world.

[Interview for MTP by Chris Castle]

MTP: There is a popular image of a songwriter sitting in front of a piano in a little cubicle at the Brill Building or Music Row and grinding out the hits.What kind of business relationships do songwriters have today?

Carnes: Most songwriters today are independent operators. Music piracy was the death knell for the day of music publishers having staffs of songwriters. The Brill Building is still there but the last time I visited it was to talk to the folks at Saturday Night Live. There wasn’t a songwriter in sight. Business relationships now are with lawyers and managers. They put together the deals and venture capitalists put up the money. The deals are done to get
the next big recording artist signed to a label and then everyone gets a piece of the action in some 360 deal.Used to be you found a great singer then you looked for a great song.

Now you find a great deal maker then look for someone with deep pockets.

MTP: Are there more or fewer songwriters working today than there were 10 years ago?If there’s a change, what forces in the business are causing that change?

Carnes: The days of music publishers who have large staffs of professional songwriters seem to be over. Music publishers used to have both established writers and their ‘farm team’ of new talent. Now they have neither. The people they sign today (if any at all) are either working recording artists or ‘future’ recording artists. The days of the ‘stand alone’ songwriter appear to be over.

There are multiple causes for this situation but most of the damage was wrought by two specific problems. The first being that the internet has turned into a Cyber-Somalia.

Professional songwriters used to live on advances from their music publisher. These advances were to be recouped from record sales only (“mechanicals” is the industry term for these revenues). Music piracy killed record sales so that made it impossible for music publishers to recoup the advances they paid songwriters so they stopped signing writers and let go of the ones they had when their contracts ran out.For example, the music publisher I was writing for in 1998 had twelve great songwriters on staff. By 2008 they had no songwriters on staff. For the math impaired that is a reduction of 100%.

The second major problem was/is a practice by the record labels of putting “controlled composition” clauses in their artists recording contracts. For the non-lawyers reading this,
these clauses are a very complicated system established by the record labels to insure that they don’t have to pay the full statutory rate imposed by the US Copyright office for the songs recorded by the artist that the artist either writes or “controls”. [Editor’s note: this includes songs co-written with a producer or other writer who is not the artist or a member of a group artist. It started right about the time that another SGA member, Hoyt Axton, helped to spearhead indexing the mechanical royalty rate to the Consumer Price Index in 1976.]

Once an artist signs a recording contract containing one of these clauses (and since all the major labels have them they have little choice) the [beginning] artist will receive, at most, 75% of the statutory rate for recording any song they write or co-write. It is the co-writing that causes problems for the professional songwriters. The record labels, because they can pay a lesser rate for any song written or co-written by the recording artist, insist that the artists now write or co-write all their songs. This has lead to a tremendous drop in the number of professional songwriters and, in most cases, the quality of the songs. The public is constantly complaining about having to pay US$12 to US$18 dollars for an album with only one or two goods songs on it. You can trace the cause of this problem back to the early eighties when all the record labels began implementing control compositions clauses in their contracts. Since then the norm on an album is one or two professionally written (or co-written) songs and a lot of filler songs that the artist wrotein order to satisfy the record label’s demand for cheap music.

MTP: Tell me about what you do at the Songwriters Guild and the untold riches you are being paid for the job?

Carnes: I am President of the Songwriters Guild of America and if I am supposed to be getting “untold riches” someone forgot to tell me!The mission statement of the SGA is two words “Protect Songwriters”. That lack of specificity has forced me to show up in all kinds of places I never thought I would be! I was the lead witness in the latest Copyright Rate Board hearing. I have testified on behalf of songwriters in both the Senate and the House of Representatives on many issues concerning song writers rights, and I have spent the last ten years flying all over the country talking to people about the harm that is being done to American music by the widespread theft of songs on the internet by a mob of anonymous looters.

MTP: What is the most common question you get from your membership?

Carnes: How do I get a song cut by Beyonce?

MTP: What are your top three legislative issues for this Congress?

Carnes: The performance right in an Audio Visual download;

Controlled Compositions;

Fighting Music Piracy (as always)

(If I could add a fourth it would be a ‘bail-out’ for all the songwriters who lost their jobsbecause their intellectual property was not protected by the US Government on the Iternet)

MTP: Who are you listening to at the moment, and what new music interests you the most?

Carnes: Luca Mundaca. A fabulous new Brazilian jazz artist who plays great guitar, sings like an angel, and writes amazing melodies. I have no idea what she is singing about since I don’t speak Portuguese. But the songs knock me out anyway. That’s what I call great songwriting.

MTP: Where do you think that songwriters are going to end up in the next 5-10 years?Meaning what role do you think they have in the music business?

Carnes:Songwriters were the number one loser of income in the US economy in 2004 (Music piracy taking its toll). So we are used to tough times. I hope to see a bottom form somewhere in the steep drop in record sales and a rebound sometime in the next ten years. If that doesn’t happen I guess we will all end up sleeping in the subway!

The real role of songwriters in the music business is to add meaning to people’s lives.

That is not a job you want to leave to amateurs. It is a job for professionals.

MTP: Do you find that members of Congress do not have a clear idea about the role of songwriters as a general rule?

Carnes: I think they understand the role of songwriters better than the typical major record label executive. At least the Members I have talked to understand that the Constitution includes provisions for royalties for creators because without them the quality of life suffers. While it is true that the Copyright laws are very difficult to understand in great detail, the general principle that creators have a right to control the copying of their work is understood by all except the most radical of the ‘Free Culture’ advocates. There are a couple of people on the Hill who think that ‘Fair Use’ extends to sharing a copyrighted song with the entire world for free.

MTP: Who do you view as the greatest commercial opponents of songwriters?

Carnes: The Major record labels are our biggest ‘commercial’ opponents. They have wreaked havoc on the songwriting community by forcing controlled composition clauses into their artist recording contracts. After them it would be all those companies out there that want to use our songs to sell something else (like advertising) and not pay us a dime. Anytime you go on a website that is offering free music they have no license to use and selling your visits to that site to advertisers you are looking at one of the ‘greatest commercial opponent of songwriters’. I wish I could offer you a list but it would be too long to type in one sitting. Besides,didn’t Richard Nixon get in trouble for having an Enemies List?

I hear a lot of talk from Google and the big online companies about their “partnerships” with the “music industry”.I find more often than not when you drill down on what that means is deals with major labels.

MTP: Do you ever have any of these companies come to you to ask you what you think or try to make a deal with your members?

Carnes: Yes we have had companies come to us about deals. But that is because our catalog administration program has some hit songs that you have to have in order to compete
in the market. So in terms of whether these services are ‘reaching out’ to smaller labels
and music publishers the SGA is not a good gauge.

MTP: If you had to rank the top five online companies as the “best” meaning most friendly to songwriters, who would they be and why?

Carnes: Songwritersguild.com would be number one *grin* (a shout out here to our webmaster)

After that I am not a fan of any particular online company since I have had to spend the last three years of my life fighting them in rate court to try to get a decent interactive streaming rate. (Which we finally won!) But I am a subscriber to Rhapsody and I check out MySpace a lot since I have so many friends that are artists and in bands. MySpace, at least, has exposed a lot of indie music.

MTP: And the five “worst”?

Carnes: Whoever the top 5 p2p sites are today. And just for the record, I am not a fan of Google because I believe their search algorithm reduces all art to the lowest common denominator. That’s a real culture-killer if I ever saw one.

MTP: Anti-copyright organizations often try to tell musicians and the music industry that they have their eye on the wrong ball, that they can offset the decline in CD sales by selling another T-shirt to fans who it would be easy to find because they were all on email.

Carnes: Songwriters don’t sell T-shirts. We’re too ugly and we dress funny. Songwriter fan clubs meet in phone booths so the email lists are too small to monetize effectively.

But seriously folks, songwriters don’t sell concert tickets, or ancillary merchandise. We make our money on record sales and radio airplay. Or, we USED to make our money on record sales. Illegal downloading ended that. Now we are looking for new jobs.

The most infuriating thing about being lectured to by anti-copyright groups about how songwriters need to get a new ‘business plan’ is who gave them the right to tell us how to make a living? Who are they to say we shouldn’t fight to defend our rights? In truth, I find their suggestions are unbelievably arrogant and self-serving.

MTP: Do you find that there are a lot of self-appointed music industry experts who have never sold a record?I’m thinking of a specific event at which I was sneered at by Eben Moglun at Future of Music Policy Summit II in 2001 for questioning the affect of piracy on independent artists and I was told more or less that I was a primitive thinker because I didn’t see that declines in CD sales would be made up by merch.I’m also thinking of a panel I was on with Corynne McSherry of the EFF at which she wedged the audience by asking the crowd if “Silicon Valley” was going to let “Hollywood” push it around. Thankfully the “Silicon Valley” fans and the “Hollywood” fans hadn’t been tailgaiting or painting themselves funny colors. [Editor’s note: And if “Silicon Valley” wouldn’t listen to “Hollywood,” would “they” listen to musicians in Bollywood, Miami, Seattle, Austin, New Orleans, London, Harlem, in no particular order. Do you have similar experiences?

Carnes: There do seem to be a lot of people trying to make the rules who never played the game.

I have had some interesting back and forth on some panels but I must say that the most interesting panel I have ever witnessed was at the Leadership Music Digital Summit a couple of years back. The subject was how the music biz could ‘compete with free’.

For some reason there was an actual economist on the panel who was totally silent for the entire panel until the very last when he spoke up and said that anyone who thinks there is a business model that competes with free is out of his mind. In any Capitalist society consumers are taught from cradle to grave to always get the best ‘deal’ they can, and NO DEAL beats free. I mention his comment only because it was the first time that I ever saw these ‘self-appointed music industry experts’ ever called on any of their malarkey by a real expert and the discussion was concluded in one sentence.

Castle: If you had to pick the most important issue of 2009 for songwriters, could you and if you could, what would it be?

Carnes: Same as every year for the last 10….Illegal downloading.If I may quote a real economist, “Nothing competes with free”.

Add the question I missed:Is Rock and Roll dead?

Yes, Rock and Roll is dead. The genre’ was played out by the mid-seventies but it has survived in a zombie-like fashion for thirty years past its expiration date.

Part of the charm of Rock music is that practically anyone can play it.It can be written by amateurs and performed by teenagers without those difficult and expensive years of training that other forms of music require. Unfortunately that also makes it the perfect ‘corporate’ music. You can get kids who don’t need money to support families or pay house notes to sign contracts that no thinking adult would sign. This allows a record label to exploit ‘this year’s model’ for all they are worth until they reach the end of their contract and want to renegotiate for decent terms. Then they simply replace them with another teen idol. The simplicity of the music has allowed the major labels to treat recording artists like ‘temp workers’.

Hopefully with the decline and fall of the major label system we might finally get to see where the music really wants to go once it is released from this corporate death-grip.

[Editors note: There’s still great music being made every day, some of it is listed in our “New Music Weekend” recommendations posted (pretty much) every Friday and reposted the following Monday on MTP and on Twitter.]

Artist Rights are Human Rights

December 10, 2011 1 comment

by Chris Castle

December 10 is International Human Rights Day.  For a variety of reasons, today is a good day to think about the state of human rights in general, and for me, in the professional creative community in particular. The recent history of the protection of creator rights is a fascinating story. These discussions frequently center on the intellectual property rights of copyright or patent accorded to creators but often assigned to private companies. These are rights that are nation-specific, but are inextricably intertwined with other rights that are universal: human rights.

The human rights accorded to creators is not a topic that is frequently discussed. In fact, leading “consumer” advocates and Google advocates (such as von Lohman (formerly of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and Patry of Google) are dismissive of “moral panics” associated with the infringement of the moral rights of creators. The term “moral panic” is generally used to criticize anyone who identifies massive stealing as theft or piracy (but is usually used pejoratively against “Big Music”–as the anti-copyright movement and other defenders of “Big Tech” such as von Lohman and Patry call the professional music business). For example--“’At its heart, [the campus downloading debate] is a fight about money, not morality. If students paid for their copying, all the shoplifting rhetoric could be shelved once and for all.’” (Powerful logic—if they paid for it and were not stealing, then they wouldn’t be called thieves. That logic will keep them busy in the faculty dining room.)

Of course, these “don’t be moral” attacks are not limited to the music industry alone; it’s just that the music industry got theirs first. Newspapers, books, motion pictures and television are all feeling the onslaught of Google, its fellow travelers and their defenders. So when the Pirate Bay defendants try to compare themselves to Google the answer is—that’s a very good point. Google may win on style points, but when it comes to artist rights, the two are very similar, which does not cut the way it was intended. The only difference is that Google gets to essentially print money to fight creators and to lobby in every capitol of the world–Pirate Bay cannot. Well–maybe not the only difference. Pirate Bay didn’t have warmed bidets or Gulfstreams.

And what bothers me the most about the massive, worldwide infringement of artist rights is not just that people are doing it. It is that the governments of the world have—until last year—done very little or nothing to stop it. And in that regard, they have violated their obligations to protect the human rights of artists.

These rights resonate in a number of international and national documents, but a good international agreement to consider first is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that was ratified by the United Nations General Assembly on December 16, 1966. It is important to remember that human rights are fundamental, inalienable and universal entitlements belonging to individuals, individual artists in our case. As a legal matter, human rights can be distinguished from intellectual property rights as intellectual property rights are arguably subordinate to human rights and actually implement at the national level the human rights recognized as transcending international and national intellectual property laws.

The Covenant recognizes everyone’s right—as a human right–to the protection and the benefits from the protection of the moral and material interests derived from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he or she is the author. This human right itself derives from the inherent dignity and worth of all persons. The Covenant recognizes these rights of artists (in article 15, paragraph 1 (c):“The right of everyone to benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he or she is the author.”

These human rights are transcendent and timeless expressions of fundamental entitlements of humanity that safeguards the personal link between authors and their creations as well as their basic material interests. These rights are personal to the authors and artists concerned and are arguably of broader scope than the rights that can be enforced under particular national intellectual property regimes.

The human rights of authors are recognized in a multitude of international agreements, including article 27, paragraph 2, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author”; article 13, paragraph 2, of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man of 1948; article 14, paragraph 1 (c), of the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1988; and article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 1952.

These precedents clearly enunciate the goals of the international community. The Covenant is closely linked with the right to own property (recognized in article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and workers’ rights to adequate remuneration. The “material interests” protected by the Covenant are protected under the right to an adequate standard of living.

These moral rights include the right of authors to be recognized as creators of their works and to object to any modification of their works that would be “prejudicial to their honor and reputation.” The protected interests of artists include the right to just remuneration for their labor as well as the moral right to the “intrinsically personal and durable link” between creators and their creations that survives even after the passing of the work into the public domain. This rule will no doubt come as a shock to those wishing to sell consumer electronics devices to the “remix culture” bent on perpetuating regurgitative “art.” Not to mention that shining example of the “hybrid economy”, the well-funded Creative Commons.

Of course it is not enough that the States of the General Assembly merely recognize these rights of artists in a number of international agreements—the States also have undertaken the affirmative obligation to protect these rights of authors. Those protections include adequate legislation and regulations, as well as making effective administrative, judicial or other appropriate remedies available to authors within each jurisdiction. Access to such remedies must be affordable, or as I have said in the past—violations of moral rights cannot be remedied only if the rich seek to enforce their rights. Anyone who takes seriously the international human rights of artists will find “Big Tech’s” dismissive use of “moral panic” to be deeply offensive to professional creators. It is Orwellian to describe as a “moral panic” an allegation of immorality being associated with massive illegal downloading that deprives creators of their ability to pursue work which they freely chose and remuneration for that work enabling them to achieve an adequate standard of living.

Google’s Patry has, in fact, travelled the world speaking to NGOs and universities trying to make his case that using the language of morality to describe massive online theft is somehow insidious and that it should stop immediately. Or, as his employer Google might say, “Don’t be moral.” This “don’t be moral” admonition obscures much more than mere lusting for commercial gain on the part of Google and the Pirate Bay. The protection of artist rights—many of the rights of the professional creative class—are entitled to protection as human rights.

This has nothing to do with intellectual property laws that apply to corporations, or “Big Music”, it has nothing to do with superstars, or the star system in general. A national artist in the smallest country has equal protection with the global superstar under the U.N. human rights treaties.

This is a complex topic that is well worth studying further.

________________________
Reposted from January 2010 MPT and MPTM

See also: Don’t Let Big Tech Hijack Net Neutrality!

See also: Why We Love Lily Allen, Bono and Krist Novoselic

See also: Why We Love Lily Allen pts 1-4

See also: An Inconvenient Truth: Songwriters Guild President Rick Carnes talks about the effect of piracy on songwriters

See also: The Man 2.0 in the Gray Flannel Suit

See also: You can take Google out of China, but can you take China out of Google?

Do Not Work For Free!

August 21, 2010 Comments off

Why we love Paul Williams

February 14, 2010 Comments off

An excellent post on Huffing & Puffington by Paul Williams, ASCAP president and gifted songwriter. Here’s a key part:

“A growing number of creative people — those talking from experience as songwriters or performing artists — are speaking up. They’re sharing legitimate perspectives on why taking content and ignoring copyright hurts those creating the music more than anyone else.

The list of these talented, respected and often critically-admired individuals constantly grows. Check out the thoughts of folks like Billy Bragg, Prince, Lily Allen, Bono or Krist Novoselic. Reach back to Metallica’s stance at the dawn of Napster. (And it’s not just songwriters or performing artists talking; digital pioneer, Jaron Lanier, makes many similar points in his new book, You Are Not a Gadget).”

A long time ago, when I lived in Frank Lucas’s New York (see Ridley Scott’s American Gangster), I got mugged one night by a junkie. During the attempted mugging I thought to myself that New York was in a nose dive of permanent decline and that there was no pulling out. They may as well just push it into the sea. Even so, there were sparks of people fighting back–which is why it was an attempted mugging–and looked to their civic leaders for guidance. None came, and it was that supreme disconnect between the street and City Hall that I think I was responding to. That all changed a few years later, and looking back I realized that I was wrong to lose hope that the situation would ever turn around.

Having survived Frank Lucas’s New York, I think I’m better prepared to survive Eric Schmidt’s Internet. One day, decent people will rise up and this blight will become “youthful indiscretion”, something people did in college, like wide ties and platform shoes. They’ll all deny actually downloading, just streamed did they, like they didn’t inhale.

The exact path is a bit fuzzy, but what I do know is that we need to all lead each other out of the problem. Trust me–the government won’t do it until we do. Until this behavior becomes a confirmation question, it will not have risen to a level of appropriate seriousness. We will continue to be told “Don’t Be Moral“, nothing to see here, move along.

As long as the government allows Google to print money in the public markets to fund litigation over its massive infringements, artist’s can’t fight Google’s money with money–not even other countries can win that battle–so we will have to do it by other means. And that doesn’t even count Megavideo, Rapidshare and the other Children of the Lessig God.

I commend Paul Williams for taking a leadership role in speaking out on these problems.

See also: Why We Love Lily Allen, Bono and Krist Novoselec

See also: An Inconvenient Truth: Songwriters Guild President Rick Carnes talks about the effect of piracy on American songwriters

Why We Love Lily Allen, Bono and Krist Novoselic

January 7, 2010 2 comments

The best way to fight bullies is to fight bullies. We saw what happened to Lily Allen last year–both when she was savaged by the mob of digital natives after her extraordinarily brave statements opposing illegal file bartering in support of independent artists and songwriters–and when she got a standing ovation from the Featured Artists Coalition. Many members of the Featured Artist Coalition (not to be confused with the Future of Music Coalition–no relation whatsoever) signed a statement supporting the view for which Lily was attacked by the mob. (The statement was signed by dozens of artists from David Rowntree and Ed O’Brien to Billy Bragg and Annie Lennox.) Sir Elton John and Lord Mandelson have also expressed similar concerns about the fate of British creative industries before crowd-sourced kleptomania.

This week, Bono published a very thoughtful op-ed in the New York Times in which he discussed a wide range of topics, one of which was his concern that illegal file bartering was making it nearly impossible for the next generation of professional songwriters to make a living from songwriting–i.e., from being professional creators.

Not to take anything away from Bono, but he is reinforcing many of the same views that were expressed not only by Lily Allen and the Featured Artist Coalition, but also by Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America. Rick has been making this point wherever he can for a long time, from this blog to the halls of Congress.

Of course, Bono was also savaged by the mob (which he had to know was coming), which is the same brutalizing that started with Metallica. What is different this time is the reaction from other artists who are supporting Bono and fighting back against the bullies. In particular is another op-ed by Krist Novoselic (“Why I Agree With Bono“) published in the Seattle Weekly. (Thanks to Dean Kay for the link.) Krist will probably find himself the victim of crowd-sourced anger as well.

Krist Novoselic makes many good points, but this one crystallizes both the problem, the challenge and the solution:

“Yes, even Utopia has rules, based on respect of ownership, and in limited circumstances, you could get censored.”

Let us all accept as a given that neither Bono nor any other artist has even the most remote desire to engage in repressive censorship of ideas. And I believe that to be true no matter how many times the mob of digital natives mouths off about China this and China that. (Google has a lot more work to do explaining their bona fides on this issue than Bono ever would in the wildest recesses of the most deranged imagination.)

What Krist Novoselic has put his finger on is the exact problem that needs to be solved online–contrary to the popular cant, there is not a market failure online.

You cannot have a market failure if you have no market, and you cannot have a market without enforceable property rights. Just ask any independent artist, book author or songwriter what it’s like to try to enforce their rights online–to the extent it works at all, notice and takedown is only for the rich who can afford to send the notices and track down the offenders. And negotiate with the big companies who routinely take their works with a “sue me if you can” business model (like Google did to authors in the predictably disastrous Google Books). The bedrock of any market is a working legal system and governments of the world have essentially tendered their job to keep creators safe by privitizing law enforcement for copyright infringement.

Yet, as we have seen recently in France and the UK, governments are starting to wake up and take action. There is also encouraging news regarding international agreements that may be of some help.

Until there are legal rules that are enforceable at a market clearing price and are respected by the majority (yes, even including the “Don’t Be Moral” crowd), professional creators will live in a first world economy offline and a fourth world economy online.

It is encouraging that artists are standing up together and opposing the utopians and swarms of digital natives–not only in their own interests but also in the interests of people they don’t even know. We have a word for people who are willing to sacrifice for others.

The best way to fight bullies is to fight bullies.

See also: Why We Love Lily Allen pts 1-4

See also: An Inconvenient Truth: Songwriters Guild President Rick Carnes talks about the effect of piracy on songwriters

See also: Facebook and Fair Copyright Canada: 100,000 Voters Who Don’t Exist

See also: The Man 2.0 in the Gray Flannel Suit

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