Rosanne Cash: ‘I’ve always been a union member’

Volume 115, No. 9September, 2015

Andy Schwartz
Photo: Clay Patrick McBride

Photo: Clay Patrick McBride

Rosanne cash and John Leventhal’s new album “The River & The Thread” was recorded under a union contract, of course (see “Traveling Partners” interview). But that’s just one example of how they stand up for fellow musicians. Guitarist and Local 802 Executive Board member Andy Schwartz sat down with Rosanne and got her views on the fight for fair royalties and the power of solidarity.

Andy Schwartz: Rosanne, you are an outspoken activist on the issues facing musicians today, including streaming and royalty rates and how these affect musicians’ livelihoods. What do working musicians need to know about the current direction the music business is taking and how do they evaluate the opportunities versus the threats?

Rosanne Cash: It’s not just streaming. It’s the devaluation of music and this idea that music should be free, with no understanding of what it takes to create music – how much time, how much effort, how expensive it is, the fact that there’s a phalanx of people in back of a record, that there are session musicians, background singers, arrangers, strings – so many elements. A lot of people think this comes out of thin air and it happens very quickly. Well, it doesn’t all the time.

Because of some glitches in copyright law – which are not only pre-Internet but even pre-war – there are many things that aren’t standardized and not under federal protection but instead go state by state, which is a big problem. And there’s never been a performance royalty on AM/FM radio. The classic example is that Aretha Franklin has never made a dime from all the times “Respect” has been played on the radio.

Now let’s talk about digital performance royalties. For recordings made after 1972, there is a performance royalty for songs played on the Internet, but it doesn’t apply to AM/FM radio and it doesn’t apply to recordings made before 1972. So Percy Sledge never earned any digital performance royalties for “When a Man Loves a Woman” because it was recorded before 1972. But Michael Bolton, who re-recorded the song in 1991, does earn digital performance royalties. This is not a dis against Michael Bolton – I think he’d be the first to say that Percy also deserved that money. Percy was very sick when I gave a speech at the introduction of the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act of 2015. I mentioned him in the speech, and he died the next day having never earned any kind of performance royalty on that song. It makes you want to cry when you think about it. So that has to change.

Now AM/FM radio owners will say to you, “But we promote you by playing your records.” Well, Congressman Jerrold Nadler reminded me there is no other industry in the U.S. where you can appropriate copyrighted material, not pay the artists, claim you are “promoting” them, and tell the artists that they should be happy about it.

Streaming is a whole other issue. Spotify, Pandora and all these streaming companies and Internet radio companies are not music companies. They’re tech companies. When Spotify goes public, you can bet all your money that they will go public as a tech company, not as a music company. These big tech companies are using music as a loss leader to create fortunes for themselves. They say that royalties are going to musicians but it doesn’t pan out. For 600,000 streams on Spotify, I got paid $104. Some will claim that this is the fault of the major labels. There is a problem there in that the major labels do have equity in Spotify. And there are “black box” payments that artists don’t know where they go. There’s a serious lack of transparency and that’s another thing that has to be addressed. I testified before Congress about all of this.

The place we have to start is the idea of fair play. Artists deserve a performance royalty across all platforms, including digital and AM/FM. We have this golden moment right now that some musicians may not realize. The U.S. Copyright Office – which is nonpartisan – just did a major review of copyright law. There was this thing that jumped out at me. They couldn’t trace how the law began; they couldn’t follow their own breadcrumbs. Copyright law is a mess and the whole thing has to be overhauled.

Songwriters and session musicians are the ones who suffer the most, I think. Everyone suffers. Real compassion or integrity is doing something now that will change things in a positive way so even if you’re not going to be around to see the change, you work for it anyway. That’s what I’m doing. Because John and I are fine: we can make a living on the road, we can make records, we can pay our mortgage. The next generation of musicians won’t be fine. And I hear about it all the time. Musicians drop out, they can’t make a living, they can’t pay their rent, they can’t sustain a lifestyle to continue to create music. It’s heartbreaking. These people are on the planet to do that.

Andy Schwartz: So what can musicians do as an organized community to make better lives and careers for themselves? You’re a member of Local 802 and SAG-AFTRA. What can you tell readers about the importance of unions both to you and to all musicians trying to grow as professionals?

Rosanne Cash: You know what got me? I always had one foot in activism. Then I met John McCrea from the band Cake, and he said it’s time to grow up. We’d always had this artistically vague idea that we weren’t business people and somebody else would take care of it. It’s time to grow up and say if we don’t take care of business, we’re not going to make a living. One thing people can do is to support the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act of 2015, sponsored by Music First. The other thing is that I’m a huge supporter and believer in unions. I’ve been a union member since I was 19. And so was my dad; I learned that from him. When I first started, he said “Join the union. That’s the first thing to do.” So we were always all union members. But I was shocked when I started to realize that in this generation, people aren’t joining the union. Why don’t you join? What’s stopping you? And they’ll say, “Well, I never saw the need. I get paid anyway. Somebody writes me a check.” And I couldn’t understand that. Why wouldn’t you want the protection, why wouldn’t you want the power, why wouldn’t you want the health insurance and the pension? It makes no sense to me. So I’m a strong believer in unions. Every Labor Day, I post something on social media: “I’m a Union Maid. Join me!”

Andy Schwartz: This year you joined the board of the Content Creators Coalition with Marc Ribot, Melvin Gibbs and Jeff Boxer, who is the organization’s executive director. What do you see that organization providing?

Rosanne Cash: We’re grassroots. Only artists. We don’t let other people join the board. We don’t take money from anyone else – not even the RIAA – to avoid potential conflicts of interest. We were a huge part of the launch of Music First, as you know. Two of us testified before Congress. Melvin and Marc are real policy wonks and go to these policy roundtables and I couldn’t do it if you paid me a million dollars. It’s so complex and they’re so smart. Now we’re also associated with the Council of Music Creators, which represents performers, songwriters and session musicians. We’re doing panels and lobbying. We have affiliations in NYC, L.A. and San Francisco – and Europe is next. We’ve got to have a unified voice and I think that’s the most important part.

Andy Schwartz: Union membership was once a highly sought-after honor by aspiring musicians. What does the union need to do in this era to organize unaffiliated musicians? Are there obstacles to overcome to change the attitude about the union? How do we let younger musicians know it’s a valid place to call home?

Rosanne Cash: Unions should talk about community and tell musicians that you don’t have to be in this by yourself. If you want protection, community and a unified voice, then it makes sense to join the union. I’ve always been a union member. I’ve never even thought about any advantages of not being a union member. When musicians tell me that they’ve never felt the need to join the union, and they’re on their own, they’re scrounging for work, why would joining the union make any sense? Well – for the protection, for the unity, for the community and for the voice. Divided we fall.