by Olivia Brown, Communications Intern
Over the years, the major labels have their fair share of critics; FMC has certainly been among them. You’ve probably heard the stories: artists arguing with their labels over issues of creative control, withheld royalty payments, shady accounting practices, payola, anticompetive activity and other shenanigans that rankle musicians and fans alike. These problems are well documented and still occur. This has resulted in a well-perpetuated meme that circles: that labels can do no right. And unfortunately, this narrative has become so fashionable that it’s frequently advanced at the expense of factual accuracy.
Take, for instance, the recent story about YouTube’s massive cuts to the view counts on both Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group’s channels. The majority of the press coverage following SocialBlade ’s initial report on the 2 billion view count cut jumped to the conclusion that Sony and Universal had artificially inflated their numbers… because that’s what a good-for-nothing company would do, right?
Well, according to Billboard , that’s not what actually happened. The vast majority (about 1.9985 billion) of the views that disappeared from the major label channels were from “dead videos”…clips that used to be on the labels’ channels, but were later removed. Recall that, in 2009, Universal, Sony and EMI decided to move all of their music videos to VEVO instead of hosting them on their own channels. Basically, all of those deleted views were merely the ghosts of videos past. Yet despite some valiant debunking, top search results are still saturated with articles claiming that the views were faked.
This isn’t the only recent example of the press running with a story critical of labels without providing full context. Wired recently ran an article focusing on the copyright notice printed on the back of Mumford and Sons’ 2012 CD, Babel. The notice was a standard one: “The copyright in this sound recording and artwork is owned by Mumford & Sons. Warning: all rights reserved. Unauthorized copying, reproduction, hiring, lending, public performance and broadcasting prohibited.” Wired decided to focus on the inclusion of the word “lending,” interpreting the copyright notice as an implication that Mumford’s label Glassnote believes they can prohibit fans from loaning CDs to their friends or families.
Of course, as SPIN pointed out, this language is standard boilerplate from the last 20 years of major label releases, now picked up by a large indie. It doesn’t mean that you can’t lend your Mumford CD to your kid sister. It simply means that you couldn’t, for example, buy up a bunch of records, set up a stand, and lend them to the public in a manner analogous to a video store.
The popular humor website Cracked contributed more egregiously to the misinformation barrage this month with their million-view article “5 Things Record Labels Don’t Want You to Know They Do.” The article claims to “expose” several unsavory practices by labels. The problem with articles like these is that the term “labels” is nebulous and inclusive of a wide variety of companies whose business practices are far from uniform.
Cracked claims labels “demand payment virtually any time music is played in public.” and name-checks ASCAP, BMI and SESAC as organizations “which make sure record labels and artists collect the royalties they’re owed” for commercial use of their music. But these are performance rights organizations, not record labels. They collect royalties for publishers, and that’s about it. The “public performance” royalties on which Cracked focuses are only given to publishers and songwriters… not labels.
Next, Cracked claims labels “reduce sound quality so you perceive a song as louder.” The reference is to aggressive dynamic range limiting, a controversial trend in audio mastering. But this can’t be blamed solely on the labels. Look at one of the cases mentioned in the article itself — Metallica’s Death Magnetic. It wasn’t the label that was incredibly defensive when fans complained about the audio quality of the record…it was Lars Ulrich himself. Ask any mastering engineer, and they’ll tell you that many artists want their music to have that immediate, attention grabbing effect just as much as their labels want a radio hit. The big labels may have started the “loudness wars,” but they aren’t its only footsoldiers.
Cracked goes on to indict labels for “paying for airplay” and “inflating prices then screwing the artists.” These are all scorn-worthy practices, but certainly not representative of the full diversity of record labels. Articles that speak of “labels” as monolithically united in anti-artist and anti-fan practices unfairly malign the many ethical indie labels that strive to do right by artists and fans. These labels don’t typically get significant commercial airplay, paid or otherwise. Many indie labels actively combated the inflation of CD prices in the early 2000s by choosing to keep promotional overhead low and selling CDs at a low flat rate and continue that practice today.
On the other hand, it is Cracked.
Nobody is asking anybody to kiss the ground at labels’ feet. When they cross lines or do wrong by artists, they should be called out. But jumping to conclusions about all labels based on the misdeeds of majors isn’t productive, nor does it excuse a lack of not-too-difficult research. When misinformation propogates online, consumers don’t understand how their choices impact artists and the rest of the creative ecosystem. And that inhibits our ability to create a healthier and more sustainable music industry for everyone.