We're all aware that corruption exists. Your first thought might be Wall Street or politics or Enron. Or perhaps you mainly know about corruption through television shows like Breaking Bad and House of Cards. But, more than likely, your first thought is not the music industry.
It was never my first thought, either. That is, until my brother picked up a guitar. He started out playing Guitar Hero at a young age and graduated to a real guitar shortly after. I have to admit, I never thought he'd actually get anywhere. After all, most people buy an instrument, tinker around with it for two days, and then let it gather dust in a closet. As it turns out, my brother is not "most people." At eighteen, he's already getting paid to play in bars with his band, and he's expressed adamantly that this what he wants to do with his life.
He's an extraordinarily talented musician, but everyone always says music is a tough industry to succeed in. I always thought this could be attributed to the sheer amount of starving artists trying to make it big. That's certainly a major factor, but, as it turns out, there's a lot more to it than that. Every day, musicians are falling victim to corruption within the industry. As the people who supply the product, one would hope that they would be compensated fairly. Yet, that is rarely the case.
Ultimately, times have changed. It's no longer possible for artists to make a living just by releasing an album. It doesn't matter how popular your album is. The fact of the matter is that no one really buys CD's anymore or even listens to the radio. And no artist makes a dime off of iTunes since a majority of listeners are downloading music illegally or relying on sources such as Pandora and Spotify. Even top performers have major difficulties. Elite Daily reveals that, as of 2014, "Pitbull -- despite having 50 million Facebook fans and nearly 170 million Youtube plays -- has sold less than 10 million albums in his entire career."
So what does this mean exactly? It means artists need to find other ways to make a living. Business Insider cites examples of product lines and sponsorships that famous artists have had to rely upon. Taylor Swift released a line of perfume. Lana Del Rey became the spokesperson for H&M. Rihanna promoted Budweiser. While these opportunities can generate a great deal of revenue, they usually only present themselves after an artist has already made it big.
Most up-and-coming artists spent exorbitant amounts of money releasing an album, publicizing it, and then going on tour. These tours are made possible by agencies and labels, which are acquired through record contracts that often result in less-than-ideal circumstances for the artist, including little to no reward and great amounts of debt. According to ABC News, "In the music industry, the artist is responsible for paying back the record label for all kinds of costs, including: clothes, travel, studio time and music videos."
Even Prince vocalized his discontent with the music industry. The singer told Rolling Stone, "Record contracts are just like . . . slavery. I would tell any young artist . . . don't sign." But this is easier said than done. Many artists become so desperate to succeed that they'll sign the first offer they get, even if it means giving up rights to their own music.
The Beatles are a classic example. According to Slate, in 1963, "[The Beatles] signed away a majority interest in their songwriting, to a struggling music publisher with no track record, for absolutely nothing." This left the band with little income for their own efforts, especially for the individual songwriters, while publisher Dick James became incredibly wealthy from the deal. Bloomberg quoted Paul McCartney from The Beatles Anthology, in which he states, "[Our manager] did do some lousy deals and he put us into long-term slave contracts which I am still dealing with. For 'Yesterday,' which I wrote totally on my own, without John's or anyone's help, I am on 15%."
This is what happens when artists trust managers and agents to make the best decisions for them. Often, managers and agents act upon selfish motivations, claiming royalties that ultimately should have gone to the artist. Because of this, the industry is dominated by producers, agencies and managers rather than the artists themselves. In some scenarios, the musicians aren't even entirely aware of what a contract entails because of fine print and/or legal jargon. This has been the case since the music industry ever came to be. In addition to the Beatles, Tim McGraw, Soulja Boy, Salt-N-Pepa, the Rolling Stones, Prince and Lady Gaga have all been victims of some sort of fraud within the music industry.
One would think that after decades of fraudulent behavior, someone would have forced some sort of change in the industry. Some backlash can be seen in the efforts of top artists. For example, Jay-Z and Prince spent millions of dollars creating their own labels in order to avoid future contract issues. Taylor Swift withdrew her songs from Spotify and publicly resisted Apple's efforts to use artists' songs without compensation. Neil Young and Prince have also withdrawn their music from streaming outlets.
But top artists aren't the only people who can do something about this issue. As consumers we can retrace our steps back to when music was still considered to be a product. Many of us have strayed from that mindset, viewing music as something we're entitled to download for free on YouTube. In reality, downloading music for free is comparable to stealing a CD from a store. Maybe it's the tangibility of a CD that makes the latter seem more deplorable.
But, truth be told, a song is a product that someone made and deserves to be compensated for. Until we accept that as reality, injustice in the music industry will continue to exist, and artists will continue to be starving.