Musicians Get Vocal

Musicians Get Vocal

While the recording industry continues to reel from a sales slump caused by sluggish economic conditions and increased piracy, a new threat is emerging as an artist advocacy group looks to put the legal rights of artists—many of whom are African American—on their agendas.

The nonprofit Artist Empowerment Coalition (AEC) is working on contract legislation and broader federal legislation for a number of states and will craft bills they hope will lead to Congress reforming federal contract and copyright law. The Artistic Freedom Act would allow musicians to opt out of recording contracts after three years if they suspect they didn’t receive qualified legal representation, or after seven years if they did. The reference to qualified counsel currently exists in state law regarding minors in the entertainment industry. The Artistic Freedom Act legislation would seek to provide that same protection to all artists. A New York statute states that if a minor has qualified counsel, they can have a seven-year contract. Qualified counsel would be someone approved by the appropriate court who has an expertise in the field of entertainment law. Members of the AEC include Stevie Wonder, Prince, DMX, Doug E. Fresh, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack, and Najee.

According to entertainment lawyer and AEC general counsel L. Londell McMillan, only a small percentage of artists live the lifestyles they portray in their music videos, or have substantial wealth to show at the end of their careers. “It’s very important for our young people to understand that much of the lifestyle promoted and marketed to them is a fable. It’s fiction; just as much of the music today that’s promoted and marketed to our young people does not represent the beauty and diversity of our creative community,” says McMillan, who helped Prince out of his contract with Warner Bros. in 1995.

Music sales have fallen for the past two years in the United States, which accounts for one third of the $40 billion worldwide recording industry market. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, blames the shrinkage on piracy via MP3 downloads and/or illegal CD burning. RIAA data puts the total dollar value of music recordings shipped in the U.S. at $5.53 billion for the first half of 2002, off 6.7% from the $5.93 billion shipped the first half of 2001.

This slump could help the AEC’s mission. “As a result you have dissatisfied artists and scared record companies,” says entertainment lawyer Lisa E. Davis, partner in the New York firm of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz.

“Londell is a valuable thinker on many of these important issues, and we have been working, and will continue to work, closely with him,” says Hilary Rosen, RIAA chairman and CEO. “With regard to the specific legislation introduced last fall in New York, we disagree with his position.”

Davis says record company resistance to changing the status quo could spark an artist revolution. Artists might seek investors to finance recording; then they’d own their master recordings. Artists could mount Internet-based marketing campaigns; sales