[I wrote this next piece in 1995. It seems quaint now, but the predictions turned out to be dead on. Stay tuned…]
Generally speaking, the law is slow to change. That is one of its strengths. We often look to law to provide stability, certainty, and predictability. When you ask a lawyer, “What’s the legal on that?”, you want a straight answer so you can make your plans accordingly. On the other hand, flexibility is essential, as our needs and expectations as a society change from era to era. Our legal system allows for occasional course corrections. That’s how established case precedents from the late 1800’s enforcing segregation could be overturned in the 1950’s.
Even when changing, the law rarely keeps pace with the rapid technological advances of our time. This is especially true now, with regard to the legal aspects of songwriting. Royalty structures that made sense when sheet music was the predominant mode of distributing music did not make sense when radio came along. Breakage deductions that were logical in the era of brittle 78 rpm records are not logical for compact discs. Mechanical royalties based on the number of manufactured records will not translate well to the information superhighway, when music is simply downloaded over a computer modem.
Recent articles in Billboard, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere describe the imminent revolution. Full compact discs will be posted on the Internet. “Netheads” will then order the CDs, which are fed over fiber-optic lines, to their home computers, downloaded, and then transferred to home audio systems. The current audio quality equals that of FM radio.
I believe the coming technological changes in the way music is transferred from the creators to the consumers bodes well for songwriters, especially those in Austin, where tastes tend towards the eclectic. It is already possible to create a 4 track home recording which can pass muster on radio, without a big budget or a big record label. What big labels and publishers still have to offer songwriters is audience access: manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. With the advent of interactive computer technology, you may soon be able to bypass pressing plants, warehouse facilities and distribution networks by sending your music directly to consumers on the Internet. Because you can economize on, if not eliminate, transportation and packaging expenses, you need sell less copies (transmissions?) of your music to make a profit. Consumer credit cards can be billed simultaneously with the transmission and sales figures can be immediate and accurate.
There are downsides. Unauthorized (and unpaid for) duplication of your material may be harder to catch. Government regulation may frustrate the more adventurous genres. And to restrict the latest music to creators and consumers wealthy enough to own the correct equipment smacks of an elitism not normally associated with a coffeehouse, a singer, and an acoustic guitar.
As record companies lose their monopolies on market access, I would argue that they should be entitled to less of the royalty pie. If on-line computer services enable you to distribute your music without them, you may not need to split the pie at all. Now may be the time to keep your current deals short term and limited in scope. The way the game is played is about to change radically. Be as free as you can be to take full advantage of the coming changes.
In the meantime, if you get any offers, call me.