With the launch of Napster in 1999 the proverbial Pandora’s Box of the digital age was more than opened, it was pillaged and burnt to the ground. No longer would the record companies and movie studios that we had relied on to provide for our entertainment needs control the playing field. Napster drew criticism early on from many artists, such as Dr. Dre and Metallica because their music was being freely distributed without the collection or payment of any royalties. Operating under the guise of “Safe Harbor” Napster claimed they were not infringing upon the copyrights of the media they were distributing. Lawsuits were filed and the company eventually folded.
Today the game has changed with the development of YouTube and Spotify, streaming sites that use advertising and subscription services to collect revenue. The royalties paid to artist from these sites is far less than what was paid by the record labels in the age of bad deals. They have employed a take it or leave it stance that some would call criminal, paying as little as 45% per song. Some of the industry’s biggest stars, like Taylor Swift, have pulled their music from Spotify for this very reason.
Hardcore Punk pioneer East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys has been very vocal on what he calls legalized extortion. He took time to share his frustration, as well as advise for combating the problem with TJ Spurgin.
Drunk Monkeys: How did you get interested in the production and recording side of things?
East Bay Ray: Back in the day when The Dead Kennedys were recording our debut single, “California Über Alles”, we recorded the tracks in like a day and we tried to mix them. We took the tracks home to listen to them played them in the car and on our home stereos and they just weren’t sounding right. There were too many cooks in the kitchen. I offered to the band to let me see if I can do it. I went in by myself and mixed it. So after five days, one day to record and four days to mix we finally got a good mix and I realized from that point it was something I wanted to get involved in. Mixing is hard you know getting it so it sounds good on different systems, making sure it captures the energy of the performance, it’s not just bringing out that one individual part it’s bring out all of the parts and have the band sound like they are playing together.
DM: You guys always handled your own business side of things. How did you learn about that?
EBR: We have always been very do-it-yourself. We’ve had booking agents, managers etc, but we’ve made all of the decisions. We own all of our own recordings and our songs
DM: How did you negotiate the rights to your music, royalties, etc and keep from getting screwed over?
EBR: There is a book called This Business of Music. It discussed various types of deals and had sample contracts. It said what kind of range people got, like a new band got a lesser royalty than a band that is established and had established fans. It talked about licensing your songs to movies, publishing your songs and all of that. You can probably search for that book on the internet. It’s probably still in print. It’s a very good overview of everything.
DM: I read your article online about the problem with YouTube, Spotify and the other streaming sites out there. How can they get away with what you called a “take it or leave it” policy when it comes to paying royalties?
EBR: There is this thing called “Safe Harbor” it’s supposed to protect but there is a huge loop hole in this law and it is destroying independent music and the sales of it. What “Safe Harbor” means is for example if I mail a letter and the post office carries that letter they are not liable for what is in the letter. Same thing with the phone company they are not liable for what is said during a conversation. That is real “Safe Harbor”. What has happened is Internet service providers kind of had that. You could upload stuff and people could download it. Here two things are different. With a letter or a phone call it only goes to one other person. You can upload the latest Hollywood Movie and it can be seen by millions of people.
The other thing is, these sites sell advertising, people like Google, Yahoo and others have what they call ad networks. What they do is give financing to setup pirate sites so they can sell advertising. They’re making money. The ad network makes money, the people that run the site make money, but the people that created the stuff make nothing. So basically what happens now is people like Spotify or YouTube say to you, “Do it our way or you can just let the Russian Gangsters outside the door take it for free”. Its basic business tactic is extortion, do it our way, there is real no negotiation as far a negotiation Spotify or with YouTube, they dictate the terms. That’s just not the way America is supposed to work. They are aren’t supposed to dictate the terms, and with them it’s do it our way or we will just let the pirates eat you up for free. They really don’t leave you with any choice. What people don’t realize is in five or ten years, independent music is going to be very, very, small. All you’re going to get is Justin Bieber and other big mass appeal stuff. In life there is no free lunch.
DM: Do you think we’ll resort back to the days of regional hits like we had in the 1950’s? It’s already shaping up to be a singles game again, with album sales being way down.
EBR: What they need to do is hold ad networks responsible. These ad networks now have a financial stake in financing illegal activity. They made money off illegal and legal activity without any consequence. Imagine it like a pawn shop, thousands of years ago society figured out pawn shop people had to be responsible for what was in their pawn shop. If it was stolen or not and if society didn’t do that anything about it someone could steal your chariot or your big vase and take it to the pawn shop. They could make money and the pawn shop guy could make money, and the person that owned the chariot or owned the big vase is out. After a while the system is going to wear out because no one is going to put any energy into something if it’s going to be stolen. I don’t see why these Internet based companies can’t do the same as a pawn shop. It may take ten or twenty years for something to change and that’s why I do interviews like this to make people more aware. It would make more sense and wouldn’t be so bad if Google was putting some of their money into supporting new music but they’re not. Their putting it into their Ferrari.
DM: What advice would you give to musicians to avoid getting ripped off?
EBR: Don’t be on Spodify, the amount of PR it gives you is not worth it until they change their business practices. Make a Vinyl Record, or a CD, a hard copy of some sort and don’t put it on the internet, one more thing put it on iTunes. iTunes pays very fair at the moment,at the moment, that might change, but that’s it, iTunes, vinyl and CD’s.
DM: What about sites like Bandcamp?
EBR: I don’t have any experience with Bandcamp but I have heard good things about it. Bandcamp would probably be another alternative. But just be careful never distribute an MP3 for free. It’s not PR, if people hear about it and it’s free why would they go out and spend money to get it. People don’t realize the amount of time and effort it take to produce a recording. If you are touring you have to take time from your day job and that cost money. People don’t realize what goes into the business side of things, such as touring was always a break even proposition. You made a little bit of money if you were successful but it was mostly to promote the band and back when we started it was to promote the sale of vinyl records.
The Dead Kennedy’s are currently on tour. Go to their website for dates and information.
A veritable rapscallion and modern-day vagabond, TJ Spurgin is currently based is The Midwest. A life-long student of Traditional American Music, he cites Chuck Berry and Marty McFly's version of Johnny B Goode for sparking his initial interest in music. As a teenager, he discovered Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bruce Springsteen, and The Byrds, along with The Flying Burrito Brothers, whom have all shaped and inspired his writing.