HOW TO REMAIN INDEPENDENT IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS,
AND WHY YOU SHOULD
© 2003 by Richard Hayes Phillips
“Why aren’t you famous?” People often ask me this after one of my concerts.
The short answer is that I lack exposure, promotion and distribution. The
deeper answer is that I do not trust the record companies.
Maybe it’s because of the horror stories I read about the experiences of
famous musicians: how the Beatles lost their copyrights, how the Jackson Five
owed money to the record company, how one of the Supremes died in poverty,
how a beautiful album by Donovan was never released because it would have
fulfilled his contract and left him free to sign with another label.
Maybe it’s because I owned fourteen albums self-produced by the guitarist
John Fahey. I figured if he can do it, so can I.
Janis Ian, the singer/songwriter who skyrocketed to fame in 1967 with her hit
single “Society’s Child,” speaks from personal experience. In 37 years as a
recording artist she has created more than 25 albums for major labels, and
has never once received a royalty check that didn't show she owed them money.
The record companies engage in accounting procedures quite unlike those of
Enron. They want to show a loss. They charge their artists top dollar for
state-of-the-art recording studios, reproduction, printing, promotion,
advertising and storage, and end up paying nothing at all to the artist.
When I was shopping around for someone to publish my lyrics, which are strong
enough to stand alone as poetry, I ran across a book by Judith Appelbaum
called “How to Get Happily Published.” I found two arguments for self-
publication to be persuasive: the product turns out the way you want it, and
it stays in print. The same goes for sound recordings.
Janis Ian tells us that when records go out-of-print, you don’t get them
back. You can’t take them to another company. The record label “owns” your
voice for the duration of the contract, so you can’t re-record the songs
somewhere else. They may even insert a “re-record provision” in the
contract, so you can’t re-record the songs even after the contract is over.
For a full exposé read “The Internet Debacle” at http://www.janisian.com.
In the publishing business, fledgling authors are well advised to copyright
their own works, all rights reserved, and to sell only the right of first
publication. If your book doesn’t sell, you are free to bring it elsewhere
for a second printing. If your book takes off, you are free to renegotiate
the terms of the contract and get a better deal.
The same goes for sound recordings. But record company contracts don’t work
that way. The normal contract is for seven albums, with no expiration date.
The company can decide that your recording is “commercially or artistically
unacceptable” and shelve your project, as they did to Donovan. Your contract
remains unfulfilled, and you can’t get out of it. Your career is over.
In short, I have three non-negotiable conditions that I would require of
anyone wishing to sign me as a musician: (1) I retain exclusive ownership of