From Valet to Entrepreneur: A Revolution of the Capitalist Composer
One of the biggest wake-up calls of my career was when I saw a record contract. I said, Wait – you sell it for $18.98 and I make 80 cents And I have to pay you back the money you lent me to make it and then you own it Who the **** made that rule Oh! The record labels made it because artists are dumb and theyll sign anything – like I did. When we found out wed been released from their recording contract it was like, Thank God!??¦ It was incredibly liberating??¦?(Trent Reznor Urges Musicians to Ditch Labels, Contact Music News)
Trent Reznor warns through his cautionary tale, and his use of colorful language; the recording industry is a capitalist institution that can leave distaste in the mouths of many aspiring musicians. New information regarding a digital revolution has introduced musicians to home recording technology, social networking web sites, and file sharing leaving many artists wondering why they ever rented their labor to corporations in exchange for bad memories. Indeed, the music industry is experiencing a paradigm shift in which the composer is placed in the shoes of a capitalist for the first time as a self represented performer capable of mass repetition. This new paradigm suggests that musicians can independently record, promote, distribute, and sell their own music without being victimized in the spiraling effect of capitalism caused by artist royalty agreements. Once it is made clear that the current capitalists of the record industry depend on the artist??™s original compositions to generate profit, servant musicians will break free of their contracts to take back their labor power, and control of the means of production. By adjusting their creative and economic methods to embrace the expanding technological environment, the modern musician can finally account for their own wages.
Noise, by Jacques Attali suggests that a similar transition, ???from the musician-valet to the musician-entrepreneur??? (Attali, 47) has occurred in previous history. According to Attali (47-50) the ???musician-valet??™ is a servant who only played what their patron commanded them to, and received a fixed salary accordingly. His examples of this musical disempowerment include Bach??™s work contract as a domestic court composer for prince Anthon Gunther, and Hyden??™s contract with Prince Esterhazy. Binding agreements of the day never enabled the composer to create music outside of their court, even though sizeable crowds did participate many of the concerts. (Attali, 46) Thus there was clear evidence of financially lucrative situations beyond their servitude to contractual agreements. (46-48) Inevitably the musicians and composers became wise to this untapped market, and began to organize concerts for the bourgeoisie who were willing to pay top dollar to hear music in concert halls. The concert hall provided the industrious musician of the 18th century with increased power over their labour, a second source of income as well as a new sense of use value in their commodity. (50-51)
In the popular music industry of the 20th century the musicians are no longer domesticated to courts, but rather to record labels. The largest majority of musicians are signed to multi-national corporations which dominate the greater part of the entertainment industry, ???By 1996, The Big Six ??“ Sony, Warner, Polygram, EMI, BMG and MCA ??“ accounted ???for over 90% of the US sales and an estimated 70 to 80 percent of worldwide record sales.??? (Burnett, 18) These entertainment empires create what we know now as the mainstream media, which is a capitalist institution focused on marketing entertainment for profit.
The demands of the major record label are similar to the patrons of the 18th century, where in the signed artist is expected to adhere to the terms of a binding contract. Most companies will impose a ???minimum delivery obligation??? in which the artist is required to produce a set number of individual master recordings before they renew, or decline their contract. (Brabec & Brabec, 133)
Record labels are also notoriously infamous for imposing upon the creative process and direction. Before offering a contract, the label require staff from their Artist and Repertoire department ???to justify their choice of an act by having an overall ???vision??™ of an artist??™s musical and visual direction, the audience they might appeal to and how they may develop??¦ this is a pragmatic consideration more than anything.??? (Negus, 48) Once the artist is locked into a contract, and the preconceived creative direction is constantly remodeled and reshaped by A & R in accordance with market trends. (48) This implies the potential disruption of the artist??™s creative vision. This is a compromise that imposes on an artist??™s autonomy, which Attali would define as an ideological apparatus meant to signify the ownership of the record label over the music created by the artist. (Attali, 47) While this intrusion can vary in intensity between labels, all record companies must build their business to appeal to a demographic, or to stylistic market to make their commodity consumable. Some would argue that the artist has free will to decline the contract, but if they sign they should understand mutual collaboration and the presence of the label. We will continue to explore this collaboration, and reveal the hegemonic conditions placed upon the artist.
In order to realize the financial disadvantage that the artist is placed under in a recording contract, one must identify the typical expenses of making a record, and conversely the cost cutting alternatives. The first stage in creating a record is financing the artist to cover recording costs. ???Recording costs for relatively new artists can range from $80,000 to $150,000 or more for one album. Established artists have been known to run up costs in excess of $500,000 for and album. (In one extreme example, former Guns ???N??™ Roses singer Axl Rose reportedly spent $13 million making a solo album.)??? (Krasilovsky & Shemel, 22)
These figures are ludicrous, considering the price of a home studio; ???An artist with access to a computer with ample storage space, music software, and instrument interface, and quality mic equipment can record a demo for less than $2000.??? (376) In terms of cost effectiveness the home studio clearly has an advantage. In addition, the massive amount of legal, cost-free resources regarding computer recording, mixing, and mastering that available to any musician with access to the Internet, equipment manuals, or public libraries is staggering. (Menasche, 245) To put the power of recording professional quality sound fully into the hands of the artist provide them with the means of reproduction. (Attai, 39) The cost effectiveness of home recording alone would assist offsetting this statistic; ???This is an industry where only two out of ten releases generate enough income from sales to cover their own costs.??? (Burnett, 24)
Statistics like theses are economically terrifying for the recording artist because they will typically earn between 9% and 12% in artist royalties for each record sold domestically at a suggested retail price. (Krasilovsky & Shemel, 19) (Brabec & Brabec, 114) For the sake of clarification, lets create a hypothetical rock band that consists of four members, who have agreed to split their royalties from album sales evenly amongst themselves. The record executives decide that the value of the group??™s useful labor, in the form of a single compact disc, is equal to exactly $20.00 with tax included. As the band sees it now their useful labor is equal to 100% of the exchange value. When the group receives the results of the record sales at the end of the financial quarter, they are exited because their record has sold 10,000 copies, amounting to a net income of $200,000! This excitement is soon diminished upon the arrival of their royalty checks. When the group signed their contract they agreed to 12% on royalties, which means that collectively as a group they have earned $16,000. Furthermore, 12% split four ways leaves each member with a measly 3% of the net income, or $4,000. Now superstar guitarist Riff Shreddington??™s useful labor has now been reduced to 3% of the exchange value. This hardly seems fair seeing as the record company has earned the remaining $184,000, effectively alienating the band from their useful labor. Furthermore, the record cost over $300,000 to release after recording, promotion, and distribution. Now the band is in debt to their record label, and must pay back the $100,000 in addition to touring costs through ticket revenues, and merchandising in order to break even. The band is being forced to work harder to afford for their dream of entertaining the masses, thus is the spiraling effect of capitalism in the recording industry. If they do not make a positive upturn in profit over the course of a year or so the record will be considered a flop, and the band will be severed from their contract. Riff Shreddington, now $2000 in personal debt, may have to return to work at Canadian Tire after his six week North American tour. Absurdity aside, this is a common situation which can be avoided when the label partnership is bypassed in exchange for autonomy.
How are artist??™s supposed to promote their music in an independent situation Artists in the music industry depend exposure as Janis Ian describes, ???Without exposure, no one comes to shows, no one buys CDs, no one enables you to earn a living doing what you love.??? (Aksomitis, 15) Today it is possible for an artist to gain massive amounts of worldwide exposure faster than ever using social networking websites like MySpace.com: ???MySpace helps performers by connecting musicians and fans, with more than 600,000 bands using this platform to upload songs and videos, announce shows, promote albums and interact with fans??¦ it??™s free and there are 43 million people on MySpace.??? (Aksomitis, 61) This type of online community is a source of endless potential for the global expansion of an artists popularity. Bands can post streaming, or downloadable music, host music videos, and post concert listings, all through a network full of people who are hungry for new music. It is an easy way for an artist to gain a large following because they have the opportunity to interface directly with their fans, and that intimate interaction often goes missing with large corporate labels. An example of successful MySpace promotion is derived from the independent rock group from Brooklyn named Coppermine. They had drawn in over 300,000 visitors to their band profile in the year 2006, with over 115,000 profile friends whom they could contact instantly with information about upcoming concerts or releases. (64) Thanks to the networking power of social networks like MySpace, Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook bands no longer have to flood radio stations with CD??™s or plaster concert posters on street corners. The Internet is also a digital goldmine for artists who need a way to distribute their music.
Grammy winning recording artist/singer songwriter Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame was one of the first major label artists to sever all ties with their record label, in exchange for a independent business model. On October 9th, 2007 Reznor announced that Nine Inch Nails had fulfilled its contractual agreement with Interscope records which was a decided to continue making full-length albums using an originally crafted sovereign business model. (New York Times, pg. A1) In an exclusive video interview Reznor shares his views on digital and physical goods, and the reasoning behind his decision:
Our business model as I see it is not so much selling digital, and physical goods anymore. I believe that since we??™ve been independent and off record labels everything??™s now in one pot. So there??™s records, concert tickets, merchandise, publishing, licensing the music??”all of that now becomes the brand of Nine Inch Nails??¦ so the way I see it is that now that everything is kind of now in the same pot things can support each other a little bit better. So for example I can give you free music and in my opinion that may contribute to more people showing up to a show. And when I say I give you free music, it??™s not really up me to give you free music: it??™s free anyway, for anybody that wants to admit it. Pretty much any piece of music you want is free on the Internet anyway. So we??™re trying to amass goodwill and do what we think is right and bring you to our??”and I hate to talk in these terms??”the ???brand??? of Nine Inch Nails??”and then it might get monetized through concert tickets, a t-shirt purchase, or a deluxe physical product of some sort??¦ (Digg Dialogg with Trent Reznor)
Reznor??™s decision to convert Nine Inch Nails into an independent ???brand??™ allowed him to have complete financial control, and full ownership over the music he creates in the future. Although, Reznor does not deny the influence positive roles Interscope records, they did garner a spot in the limelight for Nine Inch Nails:
???[Circa 1988] I strategically contacted the kind of label that I thought might be interested in a project like NIN??¦ you needed their bank account, you needed their permutation, permeation into the market??¦ I??™d find the right way to appeal to those entities, grooming myself to what they wanted??¦ a more careerist-based thing. If you are trying to change the world and you play music because that??™s your life, and it??™s the sound track to your life??¦ what your saying is unusual, unique, innovative, and you don??™t sound like what??™s on the radio??¦ you have nothing in common with American Idol or the Pussycat Dolls then you really don??™t want to be on a major record label, because all they want is to make money??¦ they??™re not interested in you as an artist; they??™re interested in you as a means to make revenue. Not your longevity, not your vision??”???How can we make money from you?????? (Digg Dialogg with Trent Reznor)
A record label is always appears to be oriented towards a pre-existing market, where artists are picked up on the condition that there is potential profit to be made, which is a fundamental capitalist pursuit.
The first two albums released by Nine Inch Nails post label separation were The Slip, and Ghosts I-IV. Ghosts I-IV was a set of four instrumental albums made during a ten-week period, inside of a basic home studio. It was released in March 2008, and was made available in multiple formats, from a bargain downloadable version for $5, to standard CDs and LPs to a luxury $300 limited edition boxed set of CDs, vinyl, DVDs and artwork. These formats were all available through the official Nine Inch Nails website. The 2,500 copies of the limited boxed set sold out within a week, and made direct profit of over $750,000. (New York Times, pg. A1) Nine Inch Nails fans found a tremendous value in the box set, and all of this money was direct profit for the Nine Inch Nails brand. Ghosts I-IV represents the first step in the new paradigm suggesting an artist can independently record, promote, publish, distribute, and sell their own music without being offended by artist royalty agreements. Reznor now has complete control over where and how his labor power will be distributed, and has made larger capital gains from it than he would in a traditional, or liberal recording contract.
It is important to note that with a group like Nine Inch Nails there was a pre-existing fan base present who were dedicated enough to pay for this music consistently. The logical criticism of his business model would ask how artists with no previous connections to a label apply the concepts therein and generate capital
When Attali attempts to answer the question, ???How does music create wealth??? he changes the standpoint from Classical to Marxist political economy, transforming the question into, ???What kind of labor produces surplus-value [capital]??? (Attali, 37) He proceeds to inquire, ???What kind of labor [in music] leads to the creation of value and the accumulation of capital??? (38) In his assessment of ???productive??? labor in music he makes a distinction, ???the productive workers who create money are the performers, and the people who produce the instruments and the scores??¦ the labor of the composer is not in itself productive of commercial wealth.??? (39-40) The composer begins to receive royalties for a work it is because he indirectly participates in the production of wealth because his composition scores are being sold to performers who are the productive wage-earning musicians, by representing the work in a commodity form. (39-40) Thus, the composer is an outsider of capitalism unless they sell their labor to capitalists, in which case the composer is remunerated with a percentage of the surplus-value (capital) obtained from the commercial sale of the score and the performance. (40) Does this sound familiar The composer is reproduced in every copy of the score (defined by Atalli as repetition in which the score is produced in mass), and represented in every performance (each performance is unique), because their labor is merely ???rented??? to the wage producers. The composer can therefore be thought of as the reason for all capitalist production in music, because the wage earners cannot create products if the ideas are not given to them first. With out the composer, the performer and the copyist could not earn wages.
Shifting gears to the here and now, the modern day recording artist can identified as a concept parallel to the composer in Attali??™s book. The independent recording artist transfixed upon in this essay is the composer, better known as the creator of original musical ideas. Historically, artists are tricked into renting their labor to capitalists in the form of the recording contract in its various forms. The capitalists will earn the wages by mass reproducing the artist??™s compositions as compact discs, remunerating the composer with a measly percentage of the royalties from record sales, effectively decreasing the labor value of the one source the capitalist depends upon. As we have discovered earlier in this paper, 80% of the time the artist will end up in debt to the record label because record sales rarely cover the expenses of recording, promotion and distribution when releasing an album. In a typical contract the artist is then expected to pay off thousands of dollars of debt by touring and selling commodity fetishisms like hats and t-shirts. Even if the artist??™s unique representation of the composition through performance breaks even with the debt cause by the record, there are still many considerations of cost to consider such as travel, food, accommodation, stage crew, lighting, ect.
Eventually, the perceptive artist will come to realize that it is possible to combine the roles of composer, promoter, distributor, and sales man changing their identity from an industry pawn into the only one in the music business with free movement. It??™s a revolution that begins with just a few, but will be only the first in a chain reaction of like-minded artists seeking freedom from class oppression. The application of Marxist thought to the concept of musical composer is important for the artist to realize that they do no have to decrease their labor value in order to be successful with their music, and that it is possible to maintain some semblance of artistic integrity in a world saturated with capitalist fluff.
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