Why Musicians Deserve Decent Royalties
The recent kerfuffle between recording artist Taylor Swift and Spotify has gotten a lot of folks questioning why recording artists need royalties in the first place. I mean, why can’t they just earn money when they’re working, like everyone else? What makes them so special that they deserve to draw payment while they are off in the Bahamas, snorting high-end pharmaceuticals from hookers’ navels?
At least, that seems to be the fantasy. The reality is a bit more grim. But allow me to illustrate my support for the musician side of things by use of a hypothetical trio of wage-earners that we will call Manny, Moe, and Jack. BTW, any resemblance to actual or non-actual persons, or even livestock, is purely coinky-dinky.
Manny is a CPA in his late fifties. He has been working for the same company for 22 years, and is looking forward to retirement in a few years. Manny works hard 40 hours a week, and does not understand why musicians should be paid while they aren’t working. Manny himself has amassed a large amount of savings, both through his regular salary and his 401k. He has a family and lives comfortably in what is considered a ‘good’ neighborhood. His kids have money for college. He sometimes yearns for the carefree days of his own college years, when his favorite band was Moe and the Schmoes. But he’s a grownup now, and realizes that there’s a time in life for everything. Rather than worry about the path not taken, Manny consoles himself in the knowledge that he is financially secure, and his children will have a good start in life.
Moe is also in his late fifties, but his life has followed a different trajectory. At the age of sixteen, he dropped out of school to form The Schlemiels, a raunchy garage band that pinned its hopes on making it in LA. To that end, the whole group moved out to the West Coast from their hometown of Ardmore, Oklahoma. When their dreams failed to materialize, the rest of the band broke up and drifted back home, disillusioned. But not Moe. He was determined to make it, plus he had no other skills to speak of. So after panhandling and living hand to mouth on the Sunset Strip for a year, he put together Moe and the Schmoes. They were fortunate to enter the biz just when the LA punk scene was taking off, and they had a run of hit singles. Their first album, “GO SCHMO!”, went Gold and they were playing sold-out arenas on both coasts.
Unfortunately, Moe didn’t know how to read a contract, and gave away his song royalties to his first shyster manager. Soon, one of the majors smelled a buck and bought out Manager #1, hoping to make a killing on an older and wiser Moe. They gave him a better deal and put him to work churning out hits. They also firmly requested he lose the Schmoes, already, and go Solo Moe. So he did…to mixed reviews.
Moe never fully regained his Mojo, but he had enough in royalties and touring to get by. But by then, twenty years had passed. He had aged out of his profession and wasn’t pretty enough to tour anymore. Plus, years of substance abuse were taking their toll. Moe entered rehab and disappeared a few years. When he came out, he got the surprise of his life. He was in vogue again! But only with The Schmoes, the only act the public remembered. And without the royalties, his whole income was reduced to what they could make touring–considerably smaller venues this time around.
Moe eventually moved to Vegas and dedicated his life to destroying what was left of his liver. One night, after his set at the Nevada Hotel & Casino, he was nursing his fourth g&t when he heard a catchy show band doing a Sam & Dave medley. And on lead trumpet, there was Jack.
Jack is–you guessed it–in his late fifties, and had been playing his horn professionally since the age of seventeen. But he was no dropout. Jack went to music school, then a conservatory, then he hit the road touring with one band after another. Employment circumstances made him join the Musicians Union at an early age, where he learned about contracts, royalties, secondary usage, and a host of other concerns that would make a big difference in his professional life to come.
Jack never ‘made it big’, in the traditional sense. He was truly a ‘Jack Of All Trades’, and became comfortable in any musical setting he could slide into. As such, he was eminently employable as a sideman, no matter the style. And even though he never wrote a bar of original music, he appeared on lots of recordings and TV shows with other bands, some of them big names in the business. He insisted on only working union, and as a result, his mailbox was invariably full of residual checks for secondary usage when the shows were rebroadcast. Individually, each check was not worth all that much, but put them together over the years and they really added up. Not enough to live on by themselves, but Jack also had his AFM pension, and in a few years, social security. These days, he played as much for fun as for money, and his reputation preceded him, so he had all the work he needed. He’s all right, Jack.
Then one night, Jack is coming home from a gig at 2:00 a.m. and he’s T-boned by a kid running a red light. Everyone survives, but after surgery and physical therapy, Jack has eight months of forced unemployment. Being self-employed, that really bites into his budget. The kid has good insurance, so Jack does get his car fixed, at least. Which is a good thing when he’s forced to move into it.
OK, take away his residuals–Jack’s on the dole. His ‘house of cards’ balancing act is stable enough with those additional revenue streams, but one bad instant swept that away. Clubs don’t pay anymore, and his recording sales dried up when everyone decided everything ever recorded was now free for the taking, online. So now Jack’s address is generally the nearest WalMart parking lot.
Still, he’s better off than Moe. Deprived of his ‘one decent shot’ royalties from hits recorded forty years ago, and increasingly shaken by his ravaged reflection in the mirror, Moe refuses to tour further, and says a final goodbye to the road. He’s found cold in a pool of pills and Tanqueray #10 by the housekeeper at a Super 8 in Boise, Idaho.
Manny’s kid came out fine, just a few stitches to the lip. His biggest problem was having to explain to the old man what he was doing out at 2:00 a.m.
Manny himself never had royalties or residuals. He still wonders why anyone else thinks they deserve them.