Sunday, 26 December 2010

Snakegrinder vs. Radioactive Records- Musicians, The Consumer and Who Owns What

Published in 'Off Kilter: The Cult Achive', 2008. N.B: This was written a few years ago and now reads to me as a bit too polemic and naive. I still have massive sympathy for Snakegrinder and people like them who have the music they've made stolen from them. But I don't think I was anywhere near rigorous enough in my interrogation of the consumerist culture that polices and transposes value in momentary terms. Never mind. You live and learn. I still think the article has merit if only for Steve Robert's input and the cautionary tale of Radioactive Records.

The current fair-trade consumer climate seems at odds with the diminishing value put on hard copies of CD’s. As more and more artists opt for internet releases and with illegal music downloading becoming more acceptable, companies like Radioactive Records are able to make a profit on music that an artist has not granted permission for them to use. One of those artists, Steve Roberts from the band Snakegrinder, speaks to us about his battle to own the rights to his own music. How far is the consumer to blame for such theft?

The music industry is facing a crisis. As it becomes more and more easy to download music through the internet, CD sales continue to decrease. The causal relationship remains obvious to those in the know. Why trek out to a record shop when you can get Prince’s new release with your morning paper? Trent Reznor has bowed down at the alter of digital technology by leaving his record label and persuading fellow artist Saul Williams to release his album through the net. The business acumen behind this is the belief that a digital release will generate sales in concert tickets and merchandise. That’s where the real money lies. Investing in hard copies of music seems about as foolish as allowing a drunk relative to put your life savings into a local pyramid scheme. As business savvy as ever, Madonna has now decided to leave the unsafe hands of Warner Music for a ‘music promotions company’ called Music Nation. At about this time, Warner Music’s stock hits an all time low. Not a great week for the CEO’s.

But monetary considerations aside, Reznor maintains that there are altruistic elements at work here: "Personally, I would like people to support artists. After all, we as artists dedicate our lives to producing the best music we can. It's [the changes in the music industry] been a painful process for me personally. But should I be angry at the audience that wants to hear music so much, an audience that is so passionate about hearing it they go online to get it two weeks before the music debuts? No, I want them to be that way." [1]. And yet, there is a sinister flipside to his reasoning as there is when Radiohead tell us that we can pay what we want for their new album if we pay at all. Music becomes as available and assessable as fast food and therefore becomes throwaway and meaningless. The fact is that in our capitalist society, how much you pay for an item does directly reflect the instrinic value you put on it. When you purchease anything gourmet, for example, you enter into a mutual agreement with the manufacturer that that piece of cheese or meat or whatever is worth the extra money you decided to spend. So, what does it say about the value being put on music if we’d rather download for free than pay a tenner for a tangible cd? Reznor confuses passion with impatience. Anyone who is truly passionate about an artist would be willing to wait two weeks to buy the cd and support the artist. The relationship between musician and listener becomes unstable when the musician has to hand out his records free at a show and states that he would ‘like’ to be supported rather than expecting to be supported.

Do musicians have the right to demand compensation for the albums they put out? Should the listener, or more cynically, the ‘consumer’, be given the entire agency here? These are the important questions that came to mind when I first got into contact with Steve Roberts, member of 70's blues-rock group Snakegrinder and founder of Newark, Delaware's 'alternative community'. Here's what happened to his band and their music in their own words:

"In the Spring of 1975, when the dissolution of the band, Snakegrinder and the Shredded Fieldmice, appeared inevitable, we decided not to go gently into that good night of Rock and Roll oblivion without preserving some of the fruits of our 5 years of labor. Being that do-it-yourself digital recording was not even invented yet, we managed to scrape a few hundred dollars together to record 3 tunes in a small, local studio. In August of that year, the band ceased to function as a working organism.

For Christmas of 1975, the band was talked into doing a reunion concert. A great success, but not enough to bring the boys back together permanently. Many people, however, asked about buying a recording. Two of us decided to put up the money to get a record made using the previously recorded tunes. (Yes, wax fruit. No CD’s yet.) When it was agreed that we would have a second Christmas concert reunion in 1976, we bought more studio time to record 3 more tunes to flesh out a full length LP, which we hoped to have ready for the second reunion. The record wasn’t finished in time to be distributed as Christmas presents but when it arrived in the Spring of 1977, the two of us who had put up the money and worked on the project sold enough of the 500 copies very quickly to cover the costs of the second recording session and the manufacture of the records.

Most of the rest of the recordings were given away to fans, friends, and family. Once the band had broken up, it was never our intention to get rich from it. We simply wanted to share the music. Imagine our surprise, when nearly 30 years later, we found our album for sale, in CD form, on several sites on the Internet! After a few e-mail inquiries to a few of these sites, we discovered that a company called Radioactive Records was selling the album. Of course, we contacted them – we were very curious as to how this came about. All-in-all our initial collective reaction was one of delight. We had become “known” and digitized!

After several back and forth communications with the proprietors of Radioactive – James Plummer and Steven Carr – we signed a contract wherein we would receive 1 pound (English) for every album sold. Seemed like a reasonable deal. Clearly we would have no way to audit the sales, but they appeared to be honestly forthcoming with their sales figures. So what else were we going to do? England is a little too far from Delaware, USA to keep our finger on the pulse. Both James and Steven seemed to genuinely like the music, and willing to deal once they were contacted. They said since there was no trail to get back to us, they couldn’t have negotiated a deal prior to them issuing the recording, and that they figured we’d find them after it was released. OK. That’s believable.

Then it began to get darker.

No monthly checks ever appeared. No e-mails were answered. I was contacted by several other artists and their agents who had recordings being sold by Plummer and Carr, in an effort to mount a lawsuit against them for piracy. Not so good."

Definitely not so good. Snakegrinder were the only ones to get as far as getting a contract drawn up with Radioactive records. A reasonable estimate would suggest that nearly all of their two-hundred plus catalogue were bootlegs with no permission by (or compensation for) the artist. Tellingly enough, when Steve asked them about having sales of their CD edited by a third party, Steven Carr told them that he’s have to ‘take our word for it.’[2] Whilst the lawsuit Snakegrinder were involved in fell through, victory did come in the form of a lawsuit filed by the Jimi Hendrix Estate over Radioactive releasing fourteen unauthorised titles. Carr and Plummer were forced to discontinue the releases- their biggest sellers- and were subsequently put out of business. Clearly, nobody fucks with Jimi.

What is remarkable is that, despite never seeing a penny from Radioactive, Steve does not come across as at all bitter or vengeful. A read through his painfully halting email communication with Carr displays his excitement at the prospect of having the CD released. When the agreement began to go sour, he continued to write them emails, handling the situation with grace and good humour: ‘Just checking to make sure you’re still ignoring us’.[3] Whilst other artists (understandably) want to cut Radioactive’s collective balls off, Steve remains pragmatic:

“Indeed, Plummer and Carr have behaved like dishonest parasites. A pox upon both their houses, unto the 10th generation…yada, yada, yada. But, all-in-all, without them, I would not be writing this article for a foreign publication. I would not be a member of an internationally known band. The music that we enjoyed making and put a lot time, effort, and selves into would not be heard. So how mad can we be? I know other pirated artists who are still trying to make a living from their music were very upset – rightfully so. But, even if Plummer and Carr sold a thousand of our CD’s, and we received our contractual remuneration, it would have amounted a few hundred dollars apiece - a small price to pay for bragging rights. I am not condoning what they did. It was wrong. They should honour their agreements and be punished for not doing so.

What I find more disturbing, is the large number of distributors who sell recordings without caring if the artists are being compensated. Rather like clothing, toys, or other retailers selling sweat-shop goods. There is very little conscience involved when it comes to making money – this isn’t just the domain of pirates and scoundrels – it permeates our consumer-driven, capitalist economy.”

His last point is worth stopping and thinking about. Businesses as disparate as Starbucks, Marks and Spencer’s and Topshop are now extolling the virtues of fair-trade products. ‘Vogue’, perhaps the ultimate materialist bible, recently featured an article which urged its readers to give up their taste for quick fashion and try to only buy staple pieces from ethically sound designers. And yet, it’s fine to take a musician’s work illegally, to pay hardly anything or nothing at all. I am not trying to downplay or trivialise the seriousness of sweat shop labour here. Fair-trade must become a non-negotiable fixture on our consumer landscape. However, there is no reason why we cannot extend such a principle to those artists who share their music with us. It is possible to live without that five pound skirt from Primark. But who wants to live without music? It becomes necessary then to re-negotiate the value currently being placed on music and be willing to pay for what we own. Art isn’t fast food and it isn’t a free-for-all.

© 2008 Emma Mould


[2] From an email correspondence provided by Steve Roberts

[3] As above

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