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Thom Yorke: Music Industry Is Months Away From Collapse

radioheadRadiohead’s Thom Yorke – ever a voice in the wilderness, yeah? – granted a rare interview in February for a new high school textbook entitled The Rax Active Citizen Toolkit. The textbook is directed at encouraging young people to be more politically active, and the interview focuses on any tips Yorke might have for young musicians.

His advice: don’t sign on with a major label! Don’t struggle to find a record contract! “Don’t tie yourself to the sinking ship,” he says, “because, believe me, it’s sinking.”

Referring to a recent conversation with Radiohead bandmate Ed O’Brien, Yorke predicts that “it’s simply a matter of time – months rather than years – before the music business establishment completely folds.”

Months rather than years. And this is coming from people who know something of that which they speak. Radiohead got off the sinking ship quite a while back, breaking acrimoniously with EMI and releasing their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, online using a pay-what-you-like model.

The Featured Artists Coalition

Since Radiohead went rogue, guitarist Ed O’Brien has become the founding director of the Featured Artists Coalition, an organization dedicated to creating change in the music industry and protecting the rights of young artists.

MMF FAC LaunchAccording to O’Brien and the FAC, one of the reasons that the industry is such a mess right now is because they’re still clinging to business models created almost a century ago. The world has changed, but the contracts haven’t, and artists are still being asked to sign years of their talent and all the rights to their music away for the honor of being picked up by a major label.

Rip-Off Roll Call

One of the worst things done to musicians who are signed to majors is that the labels demand not only licensing of the artist’s music, but “assignment.” “Assignment” means that the music belongs to the label forever, they can do whatever they want with it, and even the original artist cannot use her work without permission from the label.

Another absolute no-exaggeration tragedy taking place in today’s industry is artists being contracted by a label just so that they won’t make music. Hip hop labels like CashMoney and Def Jam notoriously sign talented emcees and stable them for years at a time just so that they won’t compete with the labels star performers. The FAC is trying to change that by fighting for a “use it or lose it” approach to copyrights and contracts.

Musicians are also being heavily affected by dealings between labels and digital distributors. Often, labels have the right to sell their entire libraries to digital companies, who then resell the music without compensating artists in any way. This is legal because, while new distributions channels and monetization opportunities have blossomed in the digital age, contracts between labels and artists have stayed the same.

“No Great Loss.”

These are just a few of the things that should make signing to a major label fundamentally unappealing for an up-and-coming musician. While I applaud the FAC’s efforts to change the system, we’d probably be a lot better off if the system would just go ahead and collapse already. In Thom Yorke’s own words, “When the corporate industry dies, it will be no great loss to the world.”

The downside, of course, is that some of the people who will suffer the most are those musicians who attach their work – often via contracts that require the promise of multiple albums and years of publishing rights – to an industry model that may be on the verge of collapsing, but that will surely take years to truly and properly die.

The solution? Don’t sign to a major label! Stop giving greedy assholes the right to profit from all the best new music! Reject the model that has become archaic! Embrace change! Find independent production resources! Promote indie talent and boycott corporate crap!

Think about it: if the music industry as we know it is really months away from collapse, where do you want to be when the lights go out?

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