Back On The Chain Gang

Last week I kept getting emails, Facebook shares, blogs, and comments about The New York Times opinion piece titled "Slaves Of The Internet, Unite!" The Tim Kreider essay decries the practice by online magazines, nonprofit organizations and other business of soliciting work from creators without offering to pay for it.

But as intriguing as the piece was, I think the commentators missed something equally important in the same issue of The Times, just a few pages later in the Arts section.

In an unrelated article about the upcoming Paramount Records historical boxed set, project producer and musician Jack White makes a comment regarding the public's value of artistry: "Music has been cheapened to the point that many people expect it to be free."

Kreider's essay really isn't about slavery. His scenarios give the creator the freedom to say "no." But White's comment comes closer to the real issue. The product of music makers' labor is often used with the creators having no right to object.

Internet radio pays artists a government-set rate of one-twentieth of a penny per stream — and the artist (and producer) can't say "no." Those same services pay songwriters even less (taking advantage of a blanket license) — and the songwriter can't say "no." Terrestrial radio pays zero for the sound recordings it plays — and the artist can't say "no." And, of course, when a consumer acquires a track without paying for it, creators' labors are used again without payment — and they can't say "no."

Now, I don't mean to diminish the definition of "slavery." The examples above are not akin to a loss of freedom and a life in forced servitude. Kreider's title is meant to be provocative, but his advice to his would-be "slaves" is to "just say no." But what about those who can't?

They can be advocates.

Music cannot be considered mere interchangeable "content," nor can its creators be considered the free labor by which so many corporations reap their profits. We must continue to make our voices heard on this and other issues, with policymakers, lawmakers and thought leaders. The practice of devaluing music will only end with a sea change in public opinion as well as the force of law. This is why events such as our annual GRAMMYs on the Hill are essential. If you're a member of The Recording Academy, I hope you'll join us in Washington, D.C., on April 2–3, 2014, to fight for your rights. And since The Times had its turn at paraphrasing Marx, let me now give it a try: "Music workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chump change."

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