A group of UK artists have got together to form the Featured Artists Coalition to demand better rights for them from record labels. There are some big names (Robbie Williams, Radiohead, Kate Nash, Dave Gilmour etc.) and among their priorities are owning the rights to recordings and a say in where their content gets licensed online.
Is this a shift in the balance of power? Not really. Paradoxically the labels’ weakness is their strength at the moment: “we can’t offer you more of the revenue pie because we’re struggling to survive as it is, and without us you wouldn’t be here”. Radiohead were only in the position to go direct to consumer with “In Rainbows” because of years of record label support.
Granting more power and say to artists is however a wise path to follow within sensible confines, such as Terra Firma’s bid to bring the majors inline with the smaller indies by offering smaller advances and 50% of NET revenues. This is the type of deal I was on when I was an artist and it gave me a real incentive to help ensure my records sold. The sight of boxes full of returns on a repress of my first release was painful enough to get me to help make the next one do better.
But I’m not convinced there is a case for artists having involvement in deciding where their content gets licensed to digitally. I don’t hear them asking for the same degree of input into which CD distributors and stores are used for physical sales. And if you take this democratization to it’s logical conclusion and give songwriters the same veto power, many albums would require between ten and twenty different people granting approval. And what happens when not everyone has the same priorities? What if Guy Chambers decided he didn’t want his songs licensing to the same online stores that Robbie Williams did?
In short, it would not be practicable for labels to have to consult with artists for each and every digital deal. The likes of imeem and CWM illustrate how the shape and nature of digital deals are changing all the time. Labels are already struggling to keep up with service licensing demand. The last thing the digital music market need now is another cog to slow down the wheel. A workable compromise might be to bake remedy clauses into artist contracts that give artists mechanisms for invoking fee negotiations, after the effect of the deal, when the license represents a significant departure from specific frameworks defined in the contract.
Finally, I’m not convinced that big name artists asking to get more out of the record labels is a message that the public are going to have a huge amount of empathy with.