from Rock & Rap Confidential/1999

A friend of mine asked me to look over her contract with the noted independent record label, Rounder. Independent labels are supposed to be the music world’s ultimate good guys and Rounder, which was founded as a collective, one of the best of them. And maybe it is.

But after I’d read about half of the contract, my friend insisted I tell her what I thought. "Well, it’s kind of like a porno script," I said. "You get screwed a different way on every page."

The contract gave the good collectivists the right to approve all the material on the artist’s albums. But the company took no responsibility for providing a producer, or guidance on material, or anything else truly creative. Just the veto. On the other end, it obliged itself to do nothing substantial to market the recordings. No advertising or radio promotion guarantees were included, for instance, nor anything else that might be construed as an overt commitment to market the discs with even the mild aggressiveness one would expect from a collective.

The option on whether to continue the business relationship lay entirely with the record company. The royalty was chintzy, and stayed that way no matter how many records the artist sold. The song publishing royalties were paid under what is known as a "controlled composition" clause, which basically means that the full statutory rate would never be paid the songwriter-artist, and that she’d pay a heavy price for recording a song written by anybody else.

In every meaningful respect, the Rounder contract is exactly as bad as a poorly negotiated contract with Sony, Time-Warner, Universal, or any of the other major labels that such independents are supposed to be so different from.

Some of this is my friend’s fault, for not hiring a good lawyer and negotiating a better agreement (you hire cheap lawyers at a high price). But the rest of it is the fault of Rounder, for acting like every other record label, large or small.

-Dave Marsh

[from Rock & Rap Confidential/1999]

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