If you haven’t read the comments on the ‘Eat to the Beat‘ post, it is worth heading over there and doing that.  The basic issue — which I admit is something that I’m only starting to seriously come to terms with — is how to properly remunerate musicians for their work, especially in a era where music, allegedly, “wants to be free”.

That earlier post dealt with one aspect of that problem, the issue of shops and shopping centres and other such businesses playing music in store.

This post deals with another issue: the money paid to artists whose music is performed on television.  Specifically, it deals with an ongoing dispute between the Association of Independent Record Labels (AIR) and the television stations MTV and VH-1.

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That stoush is about to come to the negotiating table, under the auspices of the ACCC.

This is a guest post by a board member of AIR, Marcus Seal. Marcus is himself MD of independent music group, Shock Entertainment.

We have also invited a response from MTV/VH-1 and will publish that when we receive it.

The view from the indies

by Marcus Seal

There’s a certain romance associated with being “indie” and it’s pervaded the music business and the broader community for as long as I can remember.

I’m not quite sure how this mystique evolved (personally it may have been how mushroom influenced me as a kid) but as the music business changes it’s as forceful as it’s ever been and the momentum is building. Indie music has the cache of cool, it’s edgier, it’s closer to what you actually saw and heard in the pub you went to last night.

The artists’ output has not been tampered with, synthesized, homogenised for Bland FM, no-one’s game has been co-opted as the legendary Gil Scot-Heron once sung.

There is something to this, although like every legend there is some hearsay and artistic licence in how independent organisations define themselves as well as how they are perceived.

In the independent world of music there are some wonderful examples of artistic expression reaching its audience with no interference from anyone sitting at a record label. No “hits” tweaked, no people with great ears sequencing or using that term “toppy”.

Over Shock’s 21 years we’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of examples of life-changing artistic output which has been as diverse as anyone’s dreamt up so far. We often see ourselves, and are seen, as the path of least resistance for an artist to reach an audience.

captureSome of you may recall Nirvana’s Bleach being one of the seminal independent releases on Sub Pop (although Nevermind was released on DGC it certainly embraced the independent ethos). Now there is a very good chance that the “next” Nirvana, if that’s possible, will be associated with the independent sector. In fact it’s not only a good chance it’s almost certain that if Nevermind was released today it would be through an independent label. The landscape for independent artists is better now than it has ever been and it’s improving every day. It’s also possible that this hypothetical band will be Australian, but if it’s not it may well work with an independent company in Australia (like a number of others in the independent sector we work with Australian and international repertoire).

So what fate is before this band?

As many of you know, artists don’t only sustain an existence from selling their work on CD. Their work is consumed digitally, physically, in a live setting, synched in advertisements and films, played on radio, TV and websites, put on compilations, t-shirts, lunch-boxes, etc.

While the traditional ways of doing things from a label’s perspective have been under siege for some years, there are plenty of vital functions a record label provides and one of them is to have a range of deals with various partners it negotiates with on behalf of its artist..

There are a lot of rough and tumble negotiations with those who disseminate music and those who use it a central part of their business model. This is not unique to the independent sector: everyone does it.

But what gets me is the trivialisation of a sector that is strong, growing and representative of what I think is the best and most diverse artistic output. And as a point of reference I’m talking about artists such as Gurrumul, John Butler, Sneaky Sound System, Lior, British India, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Little Red, C W Stoneking, Adam Brand, The Herd, Architecture in Helsinki, Parkway Drive, Philadelphia Grand Jury (if you haven’t heard of them you will) The Drones, Grafton Primary, Tina Harrod (yes we represent jazz as well).

The Australian Independent Record Label Association (AIR) indirectly helps represent thousands of other artists’ works. And depending on how you define the word “independent”, this list could contain thousands of other works.

Shock has been around for 21 years and we’ve carved out a pretty solid, definable niche within the Australian entertainment business. We have a distinct footprint in Australia and internationally and that enables us to directly negotiate with our partners. This is in most cases; many others in the sector aren’t able to do this.

The one that has got me stumped is MTV.

capture2Now while those peer-to-peer people seem to think music is for free, most people who run businesses who use music recognise that the artist deserves some recognition and a means by which to pay for instruments, studio time, videos, engineers and food. Resourceful artists can do an absolutely incredible amount for nothing, and one gets a front row seat to those stories on a weekly basis in the independent sector, but not everything’s for free all the time. Don’t you get it? It’s the artists who are the heroic figures of our world. So my point is most people realise that the artist and infrastructure around them need support, ultimately a good and fair trade (which is handy because CDs don’t taste too good). The artist goes on creating, the business that uses the music for whatever reason stays in business.

But MTV/VH1 Australia haven’t recognised the value of this exchange with any conviction and in my experience that makes them quite unique.

The challenge of the independents the world over is that we are necessarily disparate and represent the most diverse bunch of interests. We’re experimental to mainstream, we’re jazz, indigenous, hardcore, country, hip-hop, kids and everything in between. Our collective role is different and necessary for a variety of reasons.

Some organisations take a “divide and conquer” mentality with us (and I’m talking about the entire sector here), which I think is remarkably short-sighted. It’s opportunistic and relatively easy for some but one thing I can guarantee these companies is that you won’t outlast the independent music community. We will be here for as long as humans have ears.

To oversimplify the current situation, if the next Nirvana is a New Zealander, MTV will pay them to use their work on their channels and however else they use it. They will also do that in Europe. The stoush in Europe was legendary and reached its conclusion at the 11th hour of negotiations. These things don’t happen easily.

But what if Nirvana Mach II is Australian and with an independent?

Well, if past conduct is anything to go by, MTV won’t which is why you won’t see many of the artists I’ve listed above on their channels. As we sit here today, the answer is no, you probably won’t.

If however, you’re with one of the big four multi-nationals then MTV will pay you. Go figure.

At Shock we have chosen not to give our music videos to them since 2007 because we think their stance is wrong. I have heard others have done the same. The artists we represent haven’t been paid anything since 2004.

To say I was surprised by this discovery is an understatement. Aren’t they an iconic brand inextricably linked to music, artists and their audiences? Didn’t they break down cultural barriers when being persuaded to play Michael Jackson videos? Or is that just Walter Yetnikoff’s version of the story? It’s an old line but what does that “M” exactly stand for? So many questions, so complicated re-inventing the wheel. But that has been the challenge for the independent community and that is what we’ve done.

capture3Now AIR is a not-for-profit body that protects and serves independents within Australia. Shock is a founding member. The organisation racks up an incredible amount of voluntary hours donated by people who care about the health of the sector. Getting relatively straight-forward things done can be like herding cats but this is all necessary and I believe worthwhile on a far broader level than simply fighting for a cheque in the mail. We’ve jumped through hoops that any Olympic gymnast would be proud of. We’ve done numerous multi-state conference calls with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. We’ve explained everything to our membership in painstaking detail and enlisted their support (I’m happy to say its substantial). We’re ready to make a deal. Our actions appear to be something that is quite unique in Australia and seems to be some sort of precedent internationally.

We’ve prompted difficult questions and no doubt there’ll be a few more. We’ve been at it for two years so far and it’s turned us inside out and taken the organisation to the brink. We do all this with virtually no resources as our sponsors and members keep us alive.

MTV have always stated how involved they are in the promotion of Australian artists and I applaud the sentiment. Now while I’m passionate about Australian artists, my issue here – to clarify – is their treatment of the independents, not just Australians. (Incidentally, as far as I know, all Australian independents are Australian-owned and directly employ hundreds of Australians, whether the artists they represent be Australian or not). Over the past two years dozens of people within the music industry, including artists and labels, have contributed to this conversation and helped progress the cause. The sector does have difficulties with others but it’s the showstoppers we tend to work on first.

I suppose I should thank MTV for being the catalyst for us having to re-invent the wheel, as that’s what has been done. Our lawyers are now about to negotiate with MTV and I’m hoping there will be a satisfactory resolution on behalf of the artists within the independent sector. As far as I can tell we’ve done everything we can do to make it easy for them and all of us at AIR are eager to see what happens next.

capture4My public airing of this grievance has come as a result of two years of frustration, delays and too much time spent on trying to explain a situation that seems inexplicable. I’ve been with Shock for three and a half years and if you think this is frustration then you can rest assured this is nothing compared to the feelings some others have who’ve spent far longer in the independent world than me. I passionately believe in the continued health and vibrancy of the independent music community and I think there is a broad appreciation within and beyond our industry, independent or not.

Adversity does make us stronger and we’re just getting warmed up.

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