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September 07, 2005

Blog Joyriding

Posted by Thad

Greetings, Majikthisians -- since Lindsay left me with the keys to the blog, I thought I'd take her out for a quick spin before handing her over to the official guest bloggers for the rest of the week.

First off, though, I know Lindsay would want me to thank all of you for your kind wishes and support. Everyone can rest assured that she's been well-provisioned, will be traveling in good company, and yes, she's had all her shots. Needless to say, I'm very proud of her.

However, while we wait for Lindsay's updates from the field, I'd like to abuse my status as blog consort and direct everyone's attention to this article by guitarist Marc Ribot, which I saw in the September issue of my AFM Local 802 newsletter.

Ribot is a tremendous guitarist and composer -- even if you're not familiar with his excellent solo projects (which you really should be -- I'm especially partial to Los Cubanos Postizos) -- you probably know him from his playing on records like Tom Waits's Mule Variations and Elvis Costello's Spike.

In addition to being a hell of a musician, Ribot is a thoughtful, perceptive writer. The article I linked to is his account of the recent collaboration between Rebecca Moore's Take It To The Bridge organization and the New York musicians' union, AFM Local 802. The two groups joined forces to fight for the recording artists who were screwed over when Knitting Factory Records changed hands last year. The new owners immediately set to work destroying existing stocks of CDs and masters, removing records from circulation, and refusing to honor contracts stipulating that masters were to be returned to the artist if the record goes out of print -- all of this on top of existing problems with shady bookkeeping and nonpayment of royalties, etc.

After a long fight with the parent company of Knitting Factory Records, KnitMedia (which, of course, also owns the clubs in New York and LA), Take It To The Bridge and Local 802 emerged victorious -- all Knitting Factory Records artists were granted the right to reclaim their masters and the ability to buy up existing CD stock for $2 apiece. This victory was made possible by a rare and exciting collaboration between indie artists and the American Federation of Musicians, a union which has not traditionally been very helpful to artists who aren't symphonic musicians, Broadway pit players, or well-established studio musicians doing sessions for major labels.

You should read the whole thing of course, but here are some choice quotes:

Artists with hit records can afford to audit their record company's books. The overwhelming number of recording artists can't. Labels know this, and underpayment or nonpayment of royalties is common practice throughout the industry, by labels large and small, "indie" and major.

Nonpayment fits well with the long-term strategy of many indies: acquire a large number of titles as cheaply as possible, pay out as little as possible in promo and royalties, then sit back and wait until some of the CD's become a valuable asset - for example, the early work of an unknown artist who goes on to become a star. Next, sell to a larger indie or a major label, which picks out the one or two stars and discards the rest. Artists' work is often permanently buried when catalogues are bought and selectively released.


Long accustomed to viewing nonunion recording as isolated "dark dates" and indie labels as marginal phenomena, union officials had a rude awakening when indie recordings - nearly all nonunion - began to claim a large and growing industry market share.

As a result, Local 802 commissioned a study of the indie phenomenon by renowned sociologist Stanley Aronowitz and his graduate student Michael Roberts. It was titled "The Irony of the Indies: Post-Fordist and Post-Industrial Production Patterns in the Recording Industry," and Local 802 has copies for anyone who wants to read it.

This report confirmed that the indie label phenomenon was neither temporary nor marginal, but part of a 30-year pattern of corporate outsourcing and globalization affecting industries from automotives to food to entertainment.


Traditionally, the AFM's main constituency in recording has been hired side musicians (a/k/a "session players") rather than royalty artists. While side musicians remain an important part of the recording work force, they don't dominate it as they did 50 years ago. Any group hoping to develop economic clout in most sectors of the contemporary record industry must organize both royalty artists and side musicians. Neither of these groups can ever hope to win concessions on its own.


Organizing new sectors is a difficult, long-range goal. But long-range strategy is needed to match the long-range strategy of the record industry.

The labels' strategy seems to be this: allow the AFM to maintain the national recording agreements with major labels. At the same time, quietly move an ever-greater percentage of production out the back door to non-signatory indie labels, the overwhelming majority of which are still profitably distributed by the same major branch distributors who own the majors!

(That the industry has succeeded in marketing this change to "indie" production as an "anti-corporate rebellion" is one of the great jokes of our times.)

Non-musicians often wonder -- "If record companies are so awful, why don't musicians organize to protect themselves?" A big part of the answer here is that the biggest existing collective organization for musicians -- the AFM -- has, in the past, been indifferent (at best) to the needs of independent musicians. So any collective organization that represents indie artists -- like Take It To The Bridge -- has to be built from scratch, and has a tendency to vanish once the specific issue it was created to address has been solved. That's why I'm so excited about this recent collaboration between Take It To The Bridge and Local 802. This is exactly the direction the union ought to be taking. After all, if there's one task that a musician's collective is uniquely well-suited for, it's taking on the record companies.

- Thad


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I like being called a "Majikthiseian." I also like Marc Ribot's music.

I also like "Eels" and "The Ditty Bops."

I really, really like Eels. That Mark Oliver Everette is an unsung genius, and I don't use that word lightly.

And Gia Ciambott is great, and so is Lucinda Williams.

Love Lucinda Williams too, and Elvis Costello, always.

What do you reckon the chances are that, with the advent of the internet, some of us musicians are finally going to get off our asses and launch a semi-successful career selling privately-produced cds over the Web? This would have to bypass commercial radio (and its payola), of course, but my friends and I have been talking about it for four or five years now (which, of course, makes it a bit embarrassing that none of us have launched yet). Or, do you think that gigs and buzz will still only be built either through radio airplay or by gigging "takeover" of a local venue (as the Fabulous Thunderbirds did, back in the day, by building a name by playing over and over at a famous local club)?

Here's a musician's joke that's at least 17 years old:
Q: How many A & R guys does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: I don't know; what do _you_ think?

And an even older one:
Q: What do you call a drummer who loses his girlfriend?
A: Homeless.


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