Musicians' rights is the sort of thing that sounds difficult to oppose, like teacher pay raises or safer streets. So it's no surprise that the Concerts for Artist Rights, which will take place Feb. 26—on the eve of this year's Grammy Awards—has met with widespread support. It will span four Los Angeles venues and involve 14 name acts including The Eagles, Billy Joel, Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow, No Doubt, The Offspring, The Dixie Chicks, Trisha Yearwood, Beck, and Eddie Vedder. Organizers expect to raise $5 million for the artist trade group the Recording Artists Coalition.
It's a seductive image—Don Henley, Nicks, and the others arm-in-arm, fighting for the legal rights of the less fortunate in their trade. And it's one they would have you believe: The posters for the concerts depict a giant raised fist clenching a guitar with many smaller fists beneath it, presumably big artists fighting for the little guys. According to California State Sen. Kevin Murray, "It isn't just artists, it's artists and pipe fitters and all of the other organized labor folks." The AFL-CIO has even endorsed their efforts. But this is Goliath in David's clothing: The superstar artists lending their celebrity to the RAC are the ones who will benefit from it. In fact, they're the only ones.
The RAC was founded by Henley and Crow two years ago to counter the lobbying presence of the major record labels—Sony, Warner Bros., Universal, and others—and their political arm, the Recording Industry Association of America. Though not all RAC members are as famous as Henley and Crow, they're the ones driving the agenda. The present escalation of their efforts is inspired by two issues. One is the "seven-year rule," an arcane bit of California labor law that limits contracts for personal service to seven years. Thanks to a 1987 amendment, record labels can sue for damages on undelivered albums even after the seven-year mark has passed, effectively eliminating the protection. The RAC wants the exception stripped and is pushing for a seven-year limit on contracts at the federal level as well. The other issue is "work for hire," a provision of federal copyright law that lets record companies retain ownership of their artists' recordings in perpetuity.
Both of these rules certainly can hit hard. Last September, 19-year-old country star LeAnn Rimes told a California Senate committee that she had been under contract with her label, Curb Records, since the age of 12 and would be until she was 35. But the dirty little secret of the seven-year rule is that it has little bearing on any but the most popular acts. Less successful major-label artists (those that can't crack the 500,000 sales mark) are usually written off as bad investments and freed from their contracts well before seven years; independent labels rarely sign artists to long-term contracts in the first place as they can recoup their investments with more modest sales.
The same can be said of work for hire. Though a standard part of the major-label contract, work-for-hire provisions are rare outside the big-five labels. They're aimed at artists, like Henley, whose catalogues have lasting value. On both issues, Congress has become little more than another front for superstar artists to negotiate with their record labels.
But if the RAC is a thorn in the side of major labels, it's potentially a spear in the side of other artist groups. Brian Austin Whitney, who runs Just Plain Folks, an organization of 13,000 mostly independent artists, says, "I talk to a lot of people who mistakenly think [the RAC] represent every artist, when they actually only represent a small number of artists at the very top of the industry." The concerns of independent artists tend more toward the mundane: disability insurance, maybe retirement. "I don't think that Don Henley has to worry about health insurance," says Whitney, "but 98 percent of our members do."
In the end, the RAC may be no better for fans. One outcome of a seven-year limit on recording contracts would be that major labels would have to commit more of their resources to keeping highly successful acts, upping their contracts every few years. There would be less money for signing new artists, resulting in fewer opportunities for aspiring musicians and narrowing choices for fans. This doesn't appear to bother Henley terribly. He told the California legislature, "If [major labels] would sign less artists, I think everybody would be better off." After all, who needs to hear new artists when there's another Don Henley album out?
But the RAC may have a limited shelf life: Its popularity, even among rich artists, seems to be fleeting. Last month the group staged a follow-up visit to Sacramento, but this time without LeAnn Rimes—who appears to have put politics behind her since renegotiating her contract with Curb Records. Rimes' official Web site includes her recent wedding announcement and pictures of her new teacup Chihuahua, Precious, but it makes no mention of her former political crusade. The details of her new Curb contract were not made public, but the smart money says that it will keep her there for more than seven years. If only the RAC had a similar claim on its artists.