Don’t be Held Hostage by Labels

Traditionally, getting a deal with a record label was considered the ideal way to make a living from music. But what if your deal actually stopped you from making music?

That’s what happened to Amanda Palmer, formerly of Dresden Dolls.

From FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST (Dear Roadrunner Records…):

as many of you know, i’ve been fighting very, very hard to get off the label for the better part of two years.
for the past seven years, anything i have written and recorded (solo or with my band, The Dresden Dolls) has technically been owned and under the ultimate control of the label, but no longer.
after endless legal bullshit, it’s over, i’ve been DROPPED, RELEASED, LET GO, whatever you wanna call it. in other words: i am FREE AT LAST!!!!!! RAAHH!!

for right now & in celebration of this great event, i am very pleased to be able to – for the first time since the year 2003 – offer you this track from my house to yours….legally and free of charge.

[…]

this whole exercise may not seem like a big deal to you (artists put up music for free all the time), but for years i have not legally been allowed to put a song on a website and say: I JUST DID THIS, GO DOWNLOAD IT. it’s been illegal. i am so happy i can finally make music and just GIVE IT AWAY.

SO GO TAKE IT, PLEASE.

According to her open letter, although Palmer is very grateful for the opportunity the label had given them when no-one else would, she felt like Roadrunner Records had not supported Dresden Dolls since their second album in 2006. That’s four years in a contractual limbo where they were tied to a contract that prevented them releasing music away from the label but without providing them with enough in return.

Much less amicable is the story of Hollie Smith, a New Zealand artist who signed an international deal with EMI label, Blue Note.

After recording her debut album, singer-songwriter Smith’s international deal required that she record two extra tracks and surrender her master recordings, while the label was obliged to release the album within six months.

A couple of months later, Blue Note decided that they were not going to give the album an international release at all. Smith believed that they could just nullify the contract and then take her recordings to other labels. Instead, Blue Note told Smith that they owned the masters and that she would have to buy them back. Smith threatened to sue EMI, whose response was, according to Smith, “okay, go ahead”.

Smith had effectively lost six years of work, and, being tied in to a two-album deal, couldn’t begin to think about another album in case that work was also lost to Blue Note. She eventually settled out of court, buying back her masters and waiving some of the royalties for the album.

Three years on, Hollie Smith has just released her second album, Humour and the Misfortune of Others, but has suffered a terrible ordeal from her collapsed record deal. I really recommend you read the whole of Hollie’s interview with New Zealand Herald‘s Greg Dixon for more detail on what happened with the deal and the knock-on effects it had for her, or, alternatively, a good summary from Dub Dot Dash.

It just shows the terrible trouble you can get in to with a traditional record deal. Even if you believe you have the contract on your side, it could prove difficult and incredibly costly to take on a record label with far, far greater resources.

To sign a contract that restricts your ability to make music seems live a very bad idea to me. I was recently reading a Steve Lawson post on “obscurity” which highlights the brokenness of the record industry and how little there is to gain for an artist with a startling fact:

“[…]of the 112 albums that sold more than 250K, HALF DIDN’T BREAK EVEN! What industry, after 50 years of experimenting, of statistics or measuring trends, or gauging audience reaction, still can’t make money on a product that sells 250,000 units?? A broken, insane industry, that’s what.”

Is that really worth surrendering your right to make music for?

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