The future of the profitability of the recorded music business is unquestionably in jeopardy. One might speculate that new “access based” services like Rdio and Spotify could re-start a failing record industry. I hope so.
But as sales have fallen to less that 1/2 their heights at the turn of the century, artists and their managers and attorney are looking to every means possible of generating revenue both now and in the future from their recorded works.
The New York Times published a great piece on the coming battles over song rights, excerpted here. This will be a very interesting fight to watch as it has the potential of forever driving the nail into the coffin of the traditional record labels, forcing a complete restart of the business if it is to survive at all.
“When copyright law was revised in the mid-1970s, musicians, like creators of other works of art, were granted “termination rights,” which allow them to regain control of their work after 35 years, so long as they apply at least two years in advance. Recordings from 1978 are the first to fall under the purview of the law, but in a matter of months, hits from 1979, like “The Long Run” by the Eagles and “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer, will be in the same situation — and then, as the calendar advances, every other master recording once it reaches the 35-year mark.”
“The provision also permits songwriters to reclaim ownership of qualifying songs. Bob Dylan has already filed to regain some of his compositions, as have other rock, pop and country performers like Tom Petty, Bryan Adams, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits and Charlie Daniels, according to records on file at the United States Copyright Office.”
“In terms of all those big acts you name, the recording industry has made a gazillion dollars on those masters, more than the artists have,” said Don Henley, a founder both of the Eagles and the Recording Artists Coalition, which seeks to protect performers’ legal rights. “So there’s an issue of parity here, of fairness. This is a bone of contention, and it’s going to get more contentious in the next couple of years.”
“My gut feeling is that the issue could even make it to the Supreme Court,” said Lita Rosario, an entertainment lawyer specializing in soul, funk and rap artists who has filed termination claims on behalf of clients, whom she declined to name. “Some lawyers and managers see this as an opportunity to go in and renegotiate a new and better deal. But I think there are going to be some artists who feel so strongly about this that they are not going to want to settle, and will insist on getting all their rights back.”
“Given the potentially huge amounts of money at stake and the delicacy of the issues, both record companies, and recording artists and their managers have been reticent in talking about termination rights. The four major record companies either declined to discuss the issue or did not respond to requests for comment, referring the matter to the industry association.”
“But a recording industry executive involved in the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the labels, said that significant differences of opinion exist not only between the majors and smaller independent companies, but also among the big four, which has prevented them from taking a unified position. Some of the major labels, he said, favor a court battle, no matter how long or costly it might be, while others worry that taking an unyielding position could backfire if the case is lost, since musicians and songwriters would be so deeply alienated that they would refuse to negotiate new deals and insist on total control of all their recordings.”
“Right now this is kind of like a game of chicken, but with a shot clock,” said Casey Rae-Hunter, deputy director of the Future of Music Coalition, which advocates for musicians and consumers. “Everyone is adopting a wait-and-see posture. But that can only be maintained for so long, because the clock is ticking.”