Johnny Bravo aka Greg Brady, did it for “the chicks”. Donna Summer “worked hard for the money”. The Rolling Stones did it because it was “only rock and roll”, but they liked it. Every musician or singer has their own reason to get into the music business. Some like to do it on the weekend, while they slave away in a cubicle the rest of the week. They are known as the ‘true’ weekend warriors. Others have no choice, they have to perform. It’s born and bred into them. Like an itch needs to be scratched, they need to make music for a living. However, what if the ‘curse’ of the internet is that, yes, it can make you a star, even a sensation, but it doesn’t pay enough for your talent to prosper? Without some type of swift, sweeping reform that benefits the artist more, the internet may very well be the thing that takes more than it gives back.
Back when the Delta blues first began to be recorded, every single black artist was ripped off. Many were taken several times, having to pay studio costs that were padded, all the while being paid a ‘royalty rate’ of 1/9th of a cent per record sold. That’s correct, you had to sell 9 records to make one lousy penny. Many artists were forced to add an additional name as co-writer of the song, and that person was paid at a better rate than 1/9th of a cent royalty. In short, they were severely ripped off and this made for a lot of skeptics. It didn’t help that when rock and roll first came to town, the same thing happened again. Give up your music and your talent for very little in exchange, while the record label owner cleans up. Led Zeppelin may be thought of as one of the greatest bands of all time, but they have been sued repeatedly by the likes of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Why? Because the band helped themselves to some lyrics that they didn’t write, and then failed to inform the original composer that they were using them. It’s called ‘plagiarism’ and it cost Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and countless other groups plenty to learn a lesson.
Little Richard wrote early rock and roll classics and got very little airplay. However, Elvis Presley and Pat Boone had a lot of success with Little Richard covers. There’s the original composer, driving around in a broken down car from gig to gig, playing to small audiences, trying to eek out a living night to night, while Presley and Boone drove brand new Cadillac’s to their sold out shows. One would think that we have moved on from those days, that music, somehow came into its own ‘fairness doctrine’. Wake up or keep dreaming, it’s your choice as an artist.
Meet Pandora. Pandora is an online free or pay-for-music site that allows you to set up your own ‘radio station’ of sorts. Honestly, that really translates to setting up your playlist, which is cool if you want your friends to see and share what you listen to. The problem with Pandora is this; they simply do not want to pay a decent royalty rate to the artists that appear on their site. Take David Lowery who, in the mid 80’s fronted an indie giant band called “Camper Van Beethoven”. They had enough success recording and touring to lead a comfortable life. Lowery then went on to start another band, “Cracker”. That band went on to score a few ‘alternative hits’ including “Eye of Fatima” and “Euro-Trash Girl”, and one Top 40 charting song called “Low”. Sirius XM satellite radio gave the song about 180 plays, giving the musician $182.00, or roughly $1.00 per play. That’s a pretty healthy royalty. After giving “Low” some terrestrial radio spins, 19,000 plays netted Lowery $1,400.00, a substantially lesser amount, but not bad for a quarter year off of one song. Just over 1 million plays on the Pandora should have been a pretty good payday for Mr. David Lowery. It was time for the site to pay up. Are you as shocked as him to know that the band’s largest amount of plays ever netted him $16.89? How is that possible? Because the internet is still currently ‘No man’s Land’, when it comes to the good guys and the bad guys.
Singer, songwriter Lou Reed has a number of songs available for play on Pandora, most notably “Walk on the Wild Side”, a staple anywhere that it is listed for play. Lou Reed recently received his first royalty check from Pandora. It was for $2.60. Should this be considered a payment or an insult? Reed said that he made more money at age 14, playing guitar in a dive bar.
Speaking at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Reed had this to say,
“I understand young people were brought up on downloading and Steve Jobs tried to make it into some kind of business which benefits Apple, but you get about a sixteenth of a penny. So, the musician doesn’t get paid anything. Now, making a record is kind of a promotional thing.”
Apple’s original agreement with The Beatles, when they licensed the brand name Apple, was that it was for computer use only and not for any music devices, period. That worked well….not. Of course, the irony is that you can now download The Beatles on iTunes from Apple.
Pandora has been lobbying and lobbying hard in Washington, D.C.
That has been widely criticized by David Lowery.
“Soon, you will be hearing from Pandora how they need Congress to change the way royalties are calculated so that they can pay much less to songwriters and performers,” said Lowery, “Why doesn’t Pandora get off the couch and get an actual business model instead of asking for a handout from Congress and artists?”
So what was Pandora’s response? It bought a small South Dakota radio station in an attempt to lower the rates that it pays for streaming music online. BMI has filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to allow the performing rights organization to negotiate ‘market driven’ rates rather than have Pandora pay the current statutory radio rates.
Perhaps some lawsuits filed will force change and a better, more across-the –board rate. Until that time, keep plugging along with your projects and keep making great music. We really need it and you.