Guest Post by Cortney Harding on This Week In Music Tech
Like everyone else, I read Zoe Keating’s blog post about YouTube Music Key’s contracts last week. I was a little turned off by her “I’m a struggling artist! Who met Eric Schmidt at Davos last year!” vibe, but I’ll give her credit for shining some light on the inner workings of these deals. From my vantage point, the deal YouTube is offering isn’t bad — they’re helping artists monetize, claim their work, and make sure their catalog is complete. If artists want a real alternative to Spotify, Music Key could be the solution.
At minimum, having another strong player in the market will create competition, which artists can then use to their advantage to negotiate better deals. A monopoly in the streaming space helps no one.
I also spent some time last weekend watching the flawed-but-still-interesting “Sonic Highways.” The Seattle episode was one of the better ones, but when I saw the inevitable picture of Nirvana on the cover of Rolling Stone with Kurt in his “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” shirt, I felt…rage.
Because here’s the thing with these contracts — artists don’t have to sign them. I’ll say it one more time, for emphasis — if someone presents you with a contract you don’t like YOU. DON’T. HAVE. TO. SIGN. IT.
No one forced Nirvana to sign to Geffen back in the day. All members of the band were adults who made the choice freely and decided to put their signatures on paper. They could have stayed on Sub Pop and grown into a respected indie band. They could have quit the band, gone back to school, and had other jobs. They weighed the pro’s and con’s and took the money. So it now rings a little hollow when I hear interviews with Kurt Cobain talking about how much he hates being a rock star, because no one made him become one. And yes, I know he struggled with depression and substance abuse and that clouded his thinking, but being smart enough to engineer posing on the cover of Rolling Stone while dissing corporate magazines is the very definition of having your cake and eating it too, and you gotta be of sound and savvy mind to pull that off.
As for Zoe Keating, if she finds the YouTube contract unsatisfying, she can and should refuse to sign it. If an artist wants to keep their music off streaming, that’s their decision, although I personally think it’s a silly one. But if you want to release your music on flash drives hidden around the world and have your fans go on scavenger hunts to find them, or only release CDs at Target, or whatever, that’s your prerogative. If you’re willing to accept that fewer people will hear what you’re working on, or discover you, or that you’ll likely make less money, fine.
Some people have said that Google is acting as an 800lb gorilla in this situation, and they are totally right. And water is wet, and snow is cold. Sometimes little guys have to deal with big, heartless companies if they want to accomplish a certain thing. I would love to have a custom mortgage that worked just for me, but Wells Fargo doesn’t offer that. My husband and I weighed the decision of signing a deal that we didn’t love against the benefit of owning our apartment, and came down on the side of ownership being a higher priority for us. Other people might decide the benefit doesn’t outweigh the cost and keep renting, or look for another deal.
I’ve been seeing a lot of non-music tech articles that that all seem to have the same general theme: “why can’t I have everything I want exactly when I want it?” I watched a woman throw a fit because she couldn’t bring her toddler into a bar a while back. I heard another person complain about not getting promoted at work because he left at 5pm to go running every day.
Guess what — you don’t always get what you want all the time. You get the toddler OR the bar. You get the promotion OR you get to take off and go the gym whenever you want. There’s no “right” choice in any of those scenarios, but there are choices.
So if you want your music to reach millions of people, you might have to sign a label deal whose terms you don’t love. You might have to play nice with streaming partners you find distasteful. You might have to do boring interviews with inept journalists, or play concerts when you’re jetlagged or hungover, or wear dumb outfits and dye your hair and shill for products. If you don’t like, no one is forcing you to do any of it. In the old days, with very limited distribution pathways, it was a little harder to go it alone; now, it’s a million times easier to make your own rules if you don’t love the options in front of you.
But it’s really not worth using a deal you don’t like as a personal brand building exercise. If you hate major labels, sign to an indie. Release music by yourself. Drive an Uber and rent your place on AirBNB when you’re on the road and play small clubs. Will you make millions of dollars and headline Coachella? No. But if what you have to do to get there is antithetical to your beliefs, then those things won’t make you happy anyway.
No dogs were harmed in the writing of this blog post. My dog would like you to know that I did not pay attention to her while I wrote this and, as such, am a bad dog-parent.