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"I came here prepared to comment on the indentured servitude that artists find themselves in. Everybody said, 'Wait a minute, this is slavery, Conyers, not indentured servitude.'"
——Rep. John Conyers
THE POLITICAL HEAT IS ON
Strange Bedfellows Engage in Some Foreplay
Behind Closed Doors at Kwatinetz Confab
For weeks we've been covering the increasing politicization of the music industry. There's the fight in Sacramento over SB1246, which seeks to repeal the 1987 amendment to California's seven-year labor statute, allowing music companies to sue for damages arising from undelivered albums in the event an artist attempts to void a contract after seven years. The fight spawned the birth of the Recording Artists Coalition, led by a number of artists, managers and attorneys. Its express purpose is to give artists a political voice—and political fundraising power.

But that's hardly it. Artists such as the Dixie Chicks and Courtney Love are going to court and questioning labels' accounting practices—while actively seeking to reform the way the music industry does business. "Is this a matter of the artists biting the hands that feed them?" manager Simon Renshaw of The Firm, which represents the Dixie Chicks, asks rhetorically. "It's more like them slapping the hands that are reaching into their back pockets."

With RAC planning to use the revenues from the four Grammy-eve benefit concerts to subsidize political lobbying, thus pressuring the RIAA to follow suit, the price of poker in DC and Sacramento is definitely going up.

This Tuesday (2/20), The Firm hosted a political fundraiser titled "Winning Back the House and Winning Back Artists' Rights" for House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers of Michigan, who recently announced his intention to request an oversight hearing before said committee to investigate music-industry business practices. The soiree, hosted by Firm chiefs Jeff Kwatinetz and David Baram, raised over $300,000 for Gephardt and the Democratic party.

Among those in attendance were artists Sheryl Crow, Dexter Holland, Lionel Richie, Crystal Method, BT and Incubus; managers Irving Azoff, Jim Guerinot, Steve Rennie, John Leshay, Andy Gould and Richard Bishop; entertainment attorneys Gary Stiffelman, John Branca, Jay Cooper, Eric Greenspan, Peter Paterno, Gene Salomon, Fred Goldring and Ken Hertz; industry leaders like CAA's Richard Lovitt and Rob Light and EMI Music Publishing's Steve Backer; and politicos like state Senator Kevin Murray, California Speaker Emeritus of the State Assembly Robert Hertzberg and California Attorney General Bill Lockyer; among others.

Following recent interviews with Renshaw, Murray, the RAC's Don Henley and industry attorney Eric Kronfeld, we offer selected highlights from Kwatinetz and company's gathering—which we hear was even more provocative than these excerpts suggest—along with a follow-up chat with artist advocate Murray. (Click here for that chat.) Did we mention the politicization of the music industry?

Conyers: "It's so important that artists come together. I came here prepared to comment on the indentured servitude that artists find themselves in. Everybody said, 'Wait a minute, this is slavery, Conyers, not indentured servitude. These guys are really under the yoke.'"

Gephardt: "In every chapter of human history, there is always a fight about power. Politics is a substitute for violence. It is the method we have chosen to arbitrate that fight over power. It is a very serious business, with very serious consequences. Look at Enron. It is a story about the wielding of power against the rights of individuals for selfishness, avarice and greed. The Democratic Party is very diverse. If you go to the Republican caucus in the house, you'll see white men. You'd feel like you might be in a country club somewhere. If you go to my caucus, you'll see women, Hispanics—about 37 of them—you'll see African American—50 some odd—you'll see gays and lesbians. The Democratic Party in the house looks like and acts like America. It is America. I'm proud of this party, and I'm proud of what it represents. We've got a big job ahead of us. We've got to mobilize."

Conyers: "The recording industry is one of the most well-organized special interests on Capitol Hill. At the dawn of the digital age of music, the recording industry is getting its piece of the pie on the information superhighway. If you, the artists, are not careful, they will also take your piece of the pie. That is why I am so proud that you are getting organized and getting politically active."

Kwatinetz: "It is up to us to make it better for not just ourselves but for the many who cannot afford or are not able to affect change. And the major record labels, now numbering five, are all powerful concentrations of capital, and they don't want change."

Conyers: "I believe the root cause of the problem is the consolidation in the radio business. What makes it worse is that this consolidation has spread to the concert-ticket, concert-venue and even the music-video market. Companies like Clear Channel control everything, and they are not using their power to benefit artists or consumers."

Gephardt: "Artists have always been disorganized, you're always isolated, you're always on tour or whateveryou don't have the organizing ability of five giant corporations. I'm not being critical of them. They have their interests and they play an important role in our society. But they don't share your views on lots of issues. If you don't come together, as you are doing, then you have no voice. You have no way to be heard to insert yourself in anything to make it better for you and your colleagues. I admire you for doing this. I think it's the right thing to do."

Conyers: "The fight is raging over licensing payments for artists when their music is played on an Internet radio station or a wholly owned record-company monopoly service like Pressplay. The record companies gave lip service to artists' rights during the Napster fight. They claimed to oppose Napster because artists weren't getting a dime. Now that they have their own Internet music services, they have changed their tunes. They are trying to set up a system where artists only get 9% of revenues, by calling it a 'royalty,' instead of the 50/50 payment they deserve."

Kwatinetz: "Instead of getting involved when specific issues seem to have greater than usual consequences, the artist community must be involved over time and committed for the long haul. Some actions will have dramatic impact. Yet others may only spur gradual changes. Either way, the artist community, to be effective, must consistently, through action, show that it cares enough to stay involved. Those who profit off the product of our artists will not let up. The RIAA will not let up. Neither should we."

Conyers: "It is clear to everyone in Congress now, not just those of us who've been following the music industry for years, that the record companies don't always speak for the musicians. Let me be unequivocal: We must place reasonable limits on the length of recording contracts. Too many artists have been forced into contracts for 10, 15 or 20 albums that tie them to one label for decades—nothing could stifle creativity more than that. This would literally tie an artist to a label for life, otherwise known as 'indentured servitude.' If Sen. Murray is successful in repealing the exemption, the labels have threatened to simply shift these contracts to other states. That is why I am planning to introduce legislation that provide federal standards as a backstop and help us avoid a race to the bottom between the states."

(If you made it this far, you probably want to click here to read the interview with State Senator Kevin Murray.)
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