With digital distribution of entertainment as the focal point, the TV/film and music industries are embroiled in several disputes between those who create the content and those who distribute it. But while those disputes in Hollywood are well-documented — with powerful unions like the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild staging high-profile negotiations and, in some cases, strikes — the perception in the music industry is that artists are largely left to themselves to fight for whatever they can get on their own.
[…] To date, the bulk of artist-label disputes have centered on details contained in individual contracts, leaving artists with few options to engage their union for support.
[…] Take the revenue split for digital downloads. The standard practice is that labels pay artists the same cut they get under their contract for CD sales — around 15% after recoupable costs. However, many artists, managers and their lawyers argue digital sales should be treated as a third-party license, in which case they would get 50% of digital revenue.
“Every artist contract is an individual situation, and the labels use that to their advantage,” says Perry Resnick, a business manager with RZO, which represents David Bowie. “Labels haven’t budged on this issue at all . . . I can’t think of any way to address it other than through the courts.”
That’s exactly what’s happening. Sony BMG is facing a class action lawsuit initiated by the Allman Brothers Band and Cheap Trick over this issue for digital downloads and ringtones, and Universal Music Group faces a non-class status suit by some artists regarding a similar issue.
According to AFTRA national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, the unions have stayed out of that particular fight because they wanted to let the legal process take its course. However, she expects unions will take a much larger role in the near future.