Open the door slowly!” yells a voice from the other side of a fifth-floor apartment door in Brooklyn. I heed that warning, to find internationally renowned guitarist, composer and bandleader Marc Ribot changing lightbulbs atop a ladder that some might find precariously close to the doorway. Somehow finding time in an always busy schedule that has recently included an increasingly demanding yet almost seamless activist/musician juggling act, Marc agreed to sit down for an interview with Allegro to discuss performance royalties, how musicians get ripped off in the digital age and how a new group he is helping to lead – the Content Creators Coalition – is planning to change all that.
We decide to get right down to it, but not before I am able to strum a few chords on Marc’s beautiful resonator ukulele – made by National in the 1930s – while he brews me a cup of espresso.
As his fans already know, Marc has played for decades with Tom Waits, John Zorn, Elvis Costello and many others, while leading his own projects, such as his most recent group Ceramic Dog.
In this world of free downloads, pirated music and pay-to-play clubs, the most vital concern facing musicians today is their own worth and value. “When it comes to musicians feeling they have to play for free to further their careers,” Marc tells me, “that’s the perspective of people coming on the scene now. People on the scene now are used to playing and never getting paid, and it didn’t used to be that way. In 1982, I was playing with the Realtones, a kind of punk R&B band. We used to play at a place called Snafu, and we were a seven-piece band. We got paid $50 each and we complained about it. The point is, we got paid. The situation where people don’t get paid is recent.”
Marc adds, “Back then, there was still a cultural memory of unionism, even where there weren’t actual union contracts, and that really affected everything. Musicians had the idea, ‘Hey we’re supposed to get paid!’ And if they’re putting a mic in front of you and they want to record it and sell it, you’re supposed to get paid more. I’m not saying you didn’t get ripped off, but even when you got ripped off, it was understood as a ripoff, not as normality. That is what we have to change, at every level of the industry.”
Marc, along with various other musicians – including David Byrne, Jason Moran, Mike Mills and John McCrea – feel the time for that change is now. And that is why over the past year or so, they and others have banded together on a national scale to form the Content Creators Coalition.
Marc describes the CCC as “a workers’ center that provides a voice and pulls together musicians, artists and other creators of cultural content who have been subjected the most to digital exploitation.” This includes musicians, journalists, graphic artists and filmmakers.
“We want to serve as a catalyst, as something that can provide the glue to get disparate groups talking at the table and moving in the same direction,” Marc tells me. “We see it as our function to help mobilize artists, to help create a coalition of all the different groups that have been representing artists and musicians and songwriters. We’re trying to bring people together who might not otherwise become involved, and to get something done.”
One of the factors that has led to the rapid growth of CCC is the choice to focus on an issue that affects the largest number of musicians and can appeal to a large part of the non-musician community as well: performance royalties for terrestrial radio play. Here’s some quick background. The U.S. is one of the only nations in the world – including Iran – that doesn’t require radio stations to pay royalties to vocalists and instrumentalists. The writer of a song gets royalties, but none of the musicians on the track. A prominent example the CCC likes to use is the song “Respect.” Because she didn’t write it, Aretha Franklin never saw a penny from the millions of times that song has been played on the radio. What complicates matters even more is that America treats songs by foreign artists the same way. So artists who are used to receiving royalties in their native United Kingdom, for example, don’t receive those same payments when their song is played in the U.S. The reverse also applies: American artists don’t receive any royalties from their songs being played in other countries.
“Artists’ radio royalties,” explains Marc, “were seen as a good initial organizing issue because it’s winnable. Just about everyone supports it except Clear Channel.” So far, there have been at least two bills introduced in Congress that have attempted to address the issue of radio performance royalties: the Free Market Royalty Act and the Performance Rights Act. Both have foundered.
Marc says, “We’re going to put pressure on the stakeholders involved and the people in position to take political action to craft a bill that is winnable. We are going to create public pressure; we’re going to conduct a social media campaign. This is what was lacking last time: pressure from musicians. It’s already having an effect.”
For instance, Marc recently participated in an online event with California Democrat Judy Chu, who serves on the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives. Chu was talking about the legislative issues facing musicians and artists. “As I tuned in,” Marc tells me, “I thought she was reading from our press release. She was mentioning every point we made on this. She said there is bipartisan support in the judiciary committee, and this is something that could be won.”
Marc says that the Content Creators Coalition is going to press forward with issues that have clear and across-the-board support. “Our agenda is going to be the agenda of the musicians who show up,” he tells me. “Our intent is to be democratic, accountable, transparent and reflecting what the artists want to do, not to push anybody into doing anything, because you can’t, as you well know. Real organizing, for the CCC, for Local 802, for anybody, means you listen to people and you see what is possible to do to achieve the goals of the artists and the musicians.”
It turns out that people are ready to support the CCC’s efforts. In late February, the group held its opening party at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village. A packed house turned out to see Marc’s group Ceramic Dog as well as David Byrne, Tift Merrit, John McCrea, Mike Mills and others. To highlight the issue of performance rights, the artists all sang covers of songs that were made popular in their day by artists who didn’t write them, and subsequently, never saw a dime for their radio play. Local 802 Executive Board member Andy Schwartz was there; he spoke in solidarity and introduced a video message from AFM President Ray Hair. The audience also heard from the Jazz Foundation’s Wendy Oxenhorn, author Chris Ruen and bassist Melvin Gibbs. Marc himself spoke too.
“I feel there’s a movement right now,” says Marc. “More people are speaking out every day, every week. It’s either going to win something and create some new structures, or it won’t even be here in a year. So, we can’t afford to move at a slow pace.”
MUSICIANS VS. DIGITAL PIRACY
While Marc ribot makes clear that he can’t predict or dictate what the next issue will be for the Content Creators Coalition, he did mention the fact that there’s been a lot of discussion among musicians about digital piracy.
On piracy, Marc told me, “My own record budgets were getting cut in half and then in a quarter following the introduction of Napster and the popularity of piracy. Right now, if you type in the one of the names of my songs and the word free, the first thing that will come up is pirate sites, and anyone could get them and, as anyone knows, it’s hard to sell what can be got for free.
“Now, there are a lot of misconceptions when you get into talking about this because free is not bad. Free is good. Free is wonderful. I’ve often posted my material on web sites for free. I’ve chosen to do that. But that’s the key. It’s not about eliminating free – it’s about creating choice. It’s my choice to do that. It’s an artist’s choice whether or not they want their music available for free download. When it’s an artist’s choice to distribute it for free, then it’s freedom. If it’s not an artist’s choice, then it’s theft.
“We need to deal with the issue of digital non-payment and underpayment. The AFM has done a heroic job of upholding recording rights for musicians. They’ve done a great job of keeping the ship ship-shape, but if we do not deal with the issue of piracy, keeping the ship ship-shape is like polishing the brass doorknobs on the Titanic.”