Send in the curmudgeons.
Last week, three rock and roll old timers, on three separate occasions, came out swinging against what they perceived as unfair practices in the new music economy. Writing at the Daily Beast, songwriter/composer Van Dyke Parks, whose diverse list of collaborators includs the Beach Boys, Joanna Newsom, and Silverchair, railed against meager royalty payments on Spotify and Pandora. In the LA Times, T. Bone Burnett, who produced the soundtracks for some of the most memorable musical films in recent memory, shook his fists at the technology community’s “assault on the arts” — especially music. And in a somewhat off-topic (but still closely-related) rant, the Eagles’ Don Henley attacked young whippersnappers like Frank Ocean and Okkervil River’s Will Sheff for covering and altering his songs without permission.
What the three screeds have in common is a longing for the “good old days.” But while the new economy of music is rife with problems, the notion that the music industry was ever structured to benefit artists and creative expression is a joke.
Parks is right to question why songwriter royalty rates have gone from $2 per copy, adjusted for inflation, to only $0.09 per copy. But the barriers for entry are far lower today — any musician around the world can upload their music to a massive distribution platform like Spotify, iTunes, or YouTube. We’ve evolved past the days when record executives in suits would deign a tiny minority worthy of America’s ears. Yes, the profits were ample for those fortunate enough to make it, but getting your music in front of millions of people required an almost impossible amount of luck and timing (talent optional). Today, with no cap on the number of artists who stand to earn royalties, and with artificially-high CD prices a thing of the past, the lower royalties are, at least in part, a mathematical inevitability.
The music industry was never a meritocracy, and it’s naive for anyone to suggest that any talented, hard-working musician was ever guaranteed a living in the days of old. With that in mind, it’s more than a little obscene to see Parks write, “Forty years ago, co-writing a song with Ringo Starr would have provided me a house and a pool.”
Burnett’s article in the LA Times is better, focusing largely on a very legitimate grievance with Pandora and Sirius XM, who have taken advantage of a legal loophole to withhold royalties on pre-1972 recordings. And unlike Parks, Burnett admits how absurdly fortunate he is to have achieved success in the music industry, even back in the “good old days.” But the piece is still soaked in nostalgia, which is a bit ironic considering one of Burnett’s most recent achievements was producing the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a film set in the early 1960s that portrays the music industry as just as difficult and brutal and soul-crushing back then as it is today.
And finally there’s Henley. Henley doesn’t talk about royalties or a devaluing of music — he simply moans (and threatens legal action) over two younger artists covering his songs and changing the lyrics, without permission or credit. Never mind that neither Sheff nor Ocean made any money off the tracks — both appeared on free mixtapes. Henley tells Rolling Stone, “We work really, really hard on our material. We spend months writing it and years recording it. You don’t go into a museum and paint a moustache on somebody else’s painting.”
Please. Like the other nostalgia-laden pleas, Henley glamorizes a time when you needed hundreds of thousands of dollars and the support of a major label to record a album and get it on the radio. Just because Henley was among the anointed few awarded that golden opportunity doesn’t give him the right to limit the creativity of newcomers using expensive legal threats. And furthermore, there’s a good chance that a judge would rule against Henley because these covers, given that they are both “transformative” and given away for free, don’t detract from his ability to make money off the originals.
Travis Morrison, frontman for indie rock darlings Dismemberment Plan, told me, “I get this memo that there are some bands who maybe did make a lot of dough from manufacturing CDs. You always remember fun more than you remember payout.” Indeed, the music industry has always been a tough racket. And yes, there are serious problems facing the industry, like the fact that while ads can’t sufficiently support musicians or the platforms that host them, unfortunately not enough fans are willing to pay for music subscriptions.
But let’s be careful before honoring the old days too much. As punk legend Steve Albini put it, “[The music industry] never operated for the benefit of songwriters,” no matter how a few old timers remember it.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]