Unfree Masters: Recording Artists and the Politics of Work by Matt Stahl

Hillegonda Rietveld reviews a study of recording artists as cultural workers

February 7, 2013

Here is a book that does several things at once. It explains the current status of recording artists, both as subordinated employees and as free entrepreneurs who license rights to intellectual property, namely their music compositions and recordings. It also shows how, from the standpoint of labour politics, these cultural workers are not so different from other workers in a neoliberal political economy: competing individually while dreaming of autonomy, and contractually tied to a record company that snaps up their creative output for exploitation and keeps them indebted while offering little security.

In short, recording artists are shown to be both working people who sell their labour and entrepreneurs who sell the product of their labour: even “at the height of their power, they remain subject to the still more powerful multinational conglomerates who hold their contracts and whose influence on lawmakers is more formidable”, as Matt Stahl states. This point is evidenced through case studies that address the politics at play in recording artists’ careers in terms of US employment, contract and copyright legislation.

In my experience as a recording artist in the UK, even “renegade” independent recording labels have the power to make - or break - a music career. While some independent labels pride themselves on forgoing signed contracts with their artists, this is not necessarily helpful, even where a verbal agreement is made to fairly share half of the net profit accruing from the release of recordings. This seems a generous offer (compared with traditional labels’ offer of “points” on the retail price of recordings, from which additional costs are deducted) but it provides no mutual securities.

Without the resources to push a recording up the charts, viable income became a mirage

First, no profit, no income; as an independent recording artist I was still in debt to my label for the cost of making a first record when the second and even third recordings began. Second, no contract, no label obligations; for Situationist political reasons, my label did not believe in undertaking marketing initiatives beyond excellent sleeve design, preferring a more enigmatic stance that attracted a loyal, even fanatic, following of collectors. Nevertheless, without the expenditure of effort and resources to push a well-received recording up the charts, viable income became a mirage.

Further exacerbating its artists’ poverty was my renegade label’s refusal to pay royalties to composers (and publishers), as it did not recognise the capitalist concept of (mechanical) copyright - and neither did it contractually own the sound recordings, which meant the label’s management was unable to sell on most of the back catalogue. In such situations, despite the “cool factor” in being part of a well-known maverick indie, perhaps a detailed contract with a more conventional record company might have been the better option. Ah, but what about artistic integrity? How can artists innovate musically and take risks, if they are signed to a risk-averse major label? Should they choose music before bread?

Stahl’s study of the recording artist as cultural worker addresses the career development of independent artists and their perennial fear of “selling out”, as well as the exploitation of desire for upward social mobility in the voyeuristic talent competition American Idol, a televised audition show with equivalents around the world. The recording artist may be understood simultaneously as a pre-industrial remnant of autonomous craft production and as a glimpse into a post-industrial future. The book’s argument, however, is that political struggle in the workplace does not so much lie between autonomous artistic integrity and capitalist business interests, but rather between democratic rights and liberal concepts.

For example, as Stahl details, in 1987, the Recording Industry Association of America successfully lobbied for a change in Californian employment law that leaves recording artists “vulnerable to contracts of effectively unlimited duration”, while in 1999, it managed a small amendment to the American Copyright Act of 1976, “to include ‘sound recordings’ in the list of ‘commissioned works’ eligible for ‘works for hire’ status”. Recording artists succeeded in having the latter change repealed, by arguing that recording artists are employers of technicians and hired musicians, but they were unsuccessful in a bid to reverse the contract amendment.

Unfree Masters extends its focus beyond US recording artists to a detailed critique of the neoliberalisation of the workplace, arguing that financialisation causes high unemployment, in turn enhancing individualisation and casualisation at work, which allows employers to demand more and give less. Stahl shows that “the marginal status of present-day popular musicians enables them to serve as a lens through which we may perceive otherwise obscure truths about our own economic and cultural systems”, in which the notion of liberal democracy seems like an oxymoron.

Unfree Masters: Recording Artists and the Politics of Work

By Matt Stahl

Duke University Press, 312pp, £67.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780822353287 and 353430

Published 1 December 2012

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