Poor Prince. Even in death he is not getting the support he deserves. His 1990s battle against Warner mystified many of his fans. It continues to frustrate some journalists. Here, for example, is Barney Rooney, writing in the Guardian, ‘It’s difficult not to feel that Prince eventually became his worst enemy. Instead of settling for a role as a treasured cult act, he fought the industry, bit the hands that fed him, and painted “Slave” on his face’. And here is the Independent’s Ben Chu, ‘there has been a lot of purple prose in recent days talking about how Prince valiantly stood up for all musicians with his various battles with record labels. But it’s nonsense. When big acts attack the funding model of record companies what they are doing, whether they know it or not, is pulling up the ladder behind them’.
There are at least two factors that are coming into play here. One is the record industry’s romantic ideology. It has always been acceptable – even encouraged – for artists to fight against their record companies, but to do so they have to fall on the right side of the art/commerce divide. They receive more sympathy if they are fighting for their musical expression than if they are fighting for their contractual rights. And they receive more sympathy if they are not seen to have done well. The complaints of rich people usually fall on deaf ears.
And this is where the second factor comes into play. The music business has a famous statistic: only one in ten succeeds. Prince was certainly on the preferable side of this divide. He was among the minority who prospered, while the majority around him failed.
Unfortunately for Prince, the record industry’s success ratio has been presented in ‘winner takes it all’ terms. This idea goes back at least as far as 1776, albeit that the formula was doubled in those days. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith wrote about ‘the exorbitant rewards of players, opera-singers, opera-dancers etc.’ and noted that ‘in a profession where twenty fail for one that succeeds, that one ought to gain all that should have been gained by the unsuccessful twenty’.
This is not how things work in the record industry. The losers are the unprofitable artists who are dropped by their record companies. These artists take nothing, but at least they are not left in debt: their labels waive any money that is in arrears. The winners are those who have achieved profitability. Their gains outweigh the losses of the failures.
However, rather than taking the spoils from the unsuccessful artists, it is the unsuccessful artists who rob the winners of their spoils. Or at least this is the case when it comes to copyright. British law suggests that the owner of sound recording copyright is the party who ‘made and paid’ for the arrangements for the recording to take place. The record companies usually claim this honour, arguing that they draw up the plans for the recordings and they provide the funds.
But they don’t pay for those recordings, artists do. The budgets for recordings are issued in the form of advances. Artists then pay back these advances from their recording royalties. A recouped artist could claim that they have paid for their recording in full.
And yet the record companies still cling on to their copyrights. They defend this practice by referring to their success ratio. The copyrights of the 10% of the artists who succeed are compensation for the debts of the 90% of failures. When it comes to the ownership sound recording copyright it is not the successful artist who takes all; more commonly it is the record company.
It is this practice that Prince was fighting against. He had a right to be hostile.