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Fly the Skull and Crossbones

We’ve all seen the advertisement at the beginning of DVD’s… “Pirating is stealing.” On it’s face that sounds like a reasonable argument. Sure…copying something that you’d normally have to pay for could easily be considered stealing. But is it wrong to steal from a criminal who has themselves stolen? Oh, now this gets more interesting.

I’m starting from a premise. The record industry is made up of crooks. They steal from the artists, who are really the only ones deserving of your support. So you really shouldn’t feel too bad about pirating music. In fact, the subversive act of music piracy has changed the music scene for the better over the last 10 years.

How do record companies steal from the artists?
Mainly through bum contracts. They look for starry eyed young bands to sign to their labels with promises of riches and fame, world tours and radio play. That enthusiasm is directly translated into contract negotiations. Some of these include loans…impossible to pay back loans. Record companies “loan” money to bands to record, produce and distribute albums as an advance against future royalties and income. Basically they assure you that once the record goes platinum you will be raking in the dough, until then you have a debt to pay to the record company. If you don’t sell enough copies, that debt will still be owed. Most bands DON’T sell enough copies. Then after all is said and done it is the artists who find themselves in debt for recording the record and the record company that holds all the CD’s to recoup the cost.

It’s almost impossible to break even. On an advance of $500,000 for recording, production and distribution, the artist must sell 892,459 CD’s to break even, after everyone has been paid out, including giveaways and promotions. Even if the artist WERE to sell 1,000,000 CD’s (which anyone out there trying to sell CD’s will tell you is near impossible) here’s how the money would roughly break down.

Producer: $270,000
Record Company: $6,000,000
Artist: $60,250 (if you divide by 4, the average number of band members, that’s only $15,000)

Wait. It gets better. They usually also include return and refund clauses, stating that copies of the CD’s held by retailers that are unsold within a certain timeframe can be returned for a full refund, costs to be covered by the artist of course, and then the record company can write those CD’s off as “dead records” and sell them in bargain bins for cheap and not be required to pay any royalties or other expenses on the sale of the “dead” CD’s. Those are called “cutouts” because the artist is literally cut out of the profits through some fancy legal work.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are other clauses that appear in “standard contracts” about time, number of records to be recorded, ownership of songwriting credit, who is to perform on the tracks, etc. Basically allowing the company to bring in anyone or cut anyone out that they want. They also make sure to lock bands in to these crappy deals so that if they do well the record company makes tons of money, but also words it so that if the band is losing money they can be cut off from the support of the record company while still being saddled with the debt of the original “loan.”

All of the risk is taken on by the artist and almost none by the record company.

On a $15 dollar album the artist makes about $0.67. So if you want to support the artist DO NOT BUY THEIR CD’s from a retail store! Stop buying them on iTunes, stop buying them at Best Buy, stop buying them at Barnes and Noble. If you want to buy them online go to their CDBaby store, or better yet, send them an email and ask to purchase one directly from them.

If you buy a CD from an artist at a show for $15 they get around $12, the rest having gone to print and package the CD for you. If you buy MP3’s of a CD on the artist’s website for $10, the artist gets $10. MP3’s are free to distribute, generally.

If you pirate the artist’s material and give it to 10 friends, that is so much more valuable to the artist than buying a CD at a retail store. Those 10 people might go to a show and buy a CD directly, or they may go to a show and pay for admission or a ticket price, and the majority of that money goes to the artist as well.

So if you want to support artists, pirate the heck out of our CD’s. Give them to everyone you know. Mine included. You may steal it, with my blessing. What I do ask is that if you like it and want me to be able to make more music put some money in a tip jar some time. Come to my shows and bring your friends.  If you feel like being really honest you could come up after a show, to me or any other artist, and say “Hey man, I pirated your last album. I really like it. Here’s ten bucks. I’d love to hear you make more.” Guess what? That $10 is going right into my album fund. I’ll use it to make the next one. That’s how music business is supposed to work. The record companies just screw everything up. Let’s cut them out of the deal. Let’s all do our part to shut them down and bring music back to an authentic relationship between artist and listener. Do your part; fly that skull and crossbones high and pirate some music today.

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