In the predigital era, labels profited only from the physical recordings they funded, but as that income began dwindling, a new logic was applied to the artist-label relationship. Labels argued that by promoting the recordings they owned, they were also promoting the artist’s career as a whole, and were entitled to profit from the full spectrum of artist’s revenue streams — the “360 deal,” named for the totality of its coverage.
But labels do not take on the additional risks associated with their additional profits. Instead of protecting the health of their revenue-generating engine, they simply point to an artist’s independent-contractor status, which releases them from any liability they would be on the hook for if artists were labeled employees. Rather than sparking a labor dispute, these 360 deals quickly became the new normal. As a result, administrators, support staff and office spaces are insured against the risks of doing business, while the company’s income generators — the creators of their master recordings — are on their own.
The question of why recording artists have been unable to organize and collectively bargain the way other artists have — actors and screenwriters, for example — is one that has dogged them since the dawn of the record deal. Musicians do have a union, the American Federation of Musicians, but it’s not a particularly strong one; it primarily represents members of symphonies, and it hasn’t been on a national strike in 70 years. *
*Perhaps musicians’ renegade spirit is what ultimately will save the next generation of recording artists, who are increasingly forgoing record deals altogether and going it alone. As true independents, they work the margin between the technology that makes recordings cheaper to create and a public that is steadily buying fewer of them. Without a label taking a bite out of multiple revenue sources, the numbers can actually work. Others are coming together in groups centered on advocacy and pressing for changes to the laws that dictate royalty payments in the new streaming economy — something that could mean all the difference when injury, accident or age brings a touring musician’s career to a halt. But in the meantime, the vans and buses roll on.