Art, success, and rewards


I recently read a story where an artist sold a recording for a flat fee, and then the song went on to become hugely popular, but the artist didn’t receive any royalties. It’s a familiar story of exploitation, especially of Black artists who systematically receive less credit than they are due in American music.

However, I was distracted by an alternative interpretation that came to mind. To some extent, the rights to royalties for a song is essentially a lottery ticket. Song popularity follows a power law distribution (I presume, based on how these things usually work), so that a few songs become extremely successful while the vast majority remain in obscurity. It makes sense to want to sell your lottery ticket–provided that you get a fair price for it. If you have a losing ticket–as most people do–then selling that losing ticket is a way to still make money.

Under this alternative interpretation, the flat fee that the record label pays to the artist is potentially exploitative–but also potentially fair. And how do we know which it is? Certainly not by only telling the stories of songs that went on to achieve big success. We can’t just focus on artists who sold lottery tickets that happened to be winning tickets. What about all the other artists who sold losing lottery tickets–does this imply that the record label was “ripped off” in those transactions?

If the record label was being exploitative, it’s because they were not buying the lottery tickets at fair prices. All the artists who received flat fees deserved larger fees, including those artists who were unsuccessful.

I am not any sort of expert on the subject, but I find it highly plausible that record labels are systematically exploitative of artists. As I’ve argued, it is difficult to know the fair price of the “lottery ticket”, and that’s how it must be from many artists’ perspectives as well. Record labels, on the other hand, likely understand its value much better, and can use this information asymmetry against artists. Keeping a lottery ticket might be more risky, but it might be better to keep it for yourself than to sell it to someone who understands its value better than you do–if you have the choice at all.


So far, this is all based on guesswork. As a reality check, I read a bit about how these deals work in practice. In the standard deal, the artist gets an advance payment. The artist is entitled to a pre-agreed proportion of royalties–except that the artist’s portion goes 100% to the record label until it recoups the label’s costs. Basically, artists make a fraction of proceedings, down to a flat minimum fee. One way these deals can be exploitative is if the artist receives too small a proportion of royalties, but there are other tricks like option periods and hidden recoupable costs.


I don’t presume to know how to “fix” record deals, but I do wish we could get over the idea that artists must retain rights to royalties in order for a deal to be fair.

Many people’s idea of fairness is based on the meritocratic intuition: if a song is successful, then the person most responsible for that success–the artist–deserves the rewards. But I question whether this is really fair. For one thing, success is not the same as merit. A few songs become extremely successful while the rest dwell in obscurity; I do not think this is because just a few songs are vastly more meritorious than everything else. A comparison may be drawn to CEOs, who may very well work harder than most people, but surely do not work so much harder to justify 1000 times the pay.

For another thing, to distribute rewards by merit is only fair if the merit itself is distributed fairly. My intuition is that merit is not distributed fairly, it is at best distributed randomly.

In my socialist utopia, I suppose artists would receive some bonus for success, but a large amount of the profits would go to support other artists. Nobody knows upfront, before releasing their art to the world, if it will be successful or not. I think there is some benefit in supporting people who take the risk to produce art, even if the risk does not ultimately pay out.

Comments

  1. consciousness razor says

    This isn’t about a consumeristic purchase of a lottery ticket. It’s not that you’re gambling, with money you already possess and can afford to lose in this gamble. What’s really happening is that you’re doing work; and you must be paid for that work, or else it is a kind of slavery. That’s how you would get such money in the first place, and if you wanted to gamble with it later, that would be the time to do it.

    Generally, all of these industries are very exploitative — not only music, but also movies, TV shows, books, games, you name it. It’s not that this is especially unusual in our capitalist system, but that the arts are no exception.

    In my socialist utopia, I suppose artists would receive some bonus for success, but a large amount of the profits would go to support other artists. Nobody knows upfront, before releasing their art to the world, if it will be successful or not. I think there is some benefit in supporting people who take the risk to produce art, even if the risk does not ultimately pay out.

    Well, I think it should be the same basic story as in rest of our economy. A super-wealthy class should not exist at all. We don’t have to keep them around in some form, in order to support those in the lower classes. The class divide itself is what needs to go.

  2. says

    @CR,

    Well, I think it should be the same basic story as in rest of our economy. A super-wealthy class should not exist at all.

    That’s the direction I would go as well, but I thought I’d keep it within scope 😛

  3. says

    I mean, the problem with redistributing wealth from successful artists to less successful artists, is how do you even implement that as a policy? What counts as art, and who counts as an artist? It’s arguably easier and better to just redistribute all wealth regardless of domain, incidentally also redistributing wealth among artists. UBI now, etc. etc.

  4. consciousness razor says

    I mean, the problem with redistributing wealth from successful artists to less successful artists, is how do you even implement that as a policy?

    A decent minimum wage is one part of it. And calling them “independent contractors” or some such thing should make no difference whatsoever. They’re workers who did work, so they should be paid accordingly. If all the capitalists can do is claim that they own something, that’s not work. I don’t think they need payment for it — which comes from us, it should be noted — because they already have something they consider valuable. If they want more, they should get a real job which requires work.

    What counts as art, and who counts as an artist?

    If you make or do something which is “artificial,” it’s a kind of art. If the thing ends up in a museum someday, then it’s art which happens to be located in a museum. If it ends up in a dumpster, it’s art in a dumpster. If it’s a burger at a McDonald’s, then yes, you can order fries with that.

    It’s not very different from the semantics of “work” or of “a work” which someone made. We never need to give money in payment to natural objects out there in the world — they won’t accept it even if we tried — we only ever pay other people for the things they’re doing. The really astonishing thing is that so many people seem to think they shouldn’t have to pay artists.

    Since EMI was broken up in 2012, we’re left with only three big record labels. The US and Canada market share of each in 2019:
    Universal Music Group: 54.5%
    Sony Music: 23.4%
    Warner Music Group: 12.1%
    Total: 90%

    I think we can focus much of our attention there right now. They should not monopolize the market. You might think much of the money goes to a handful of rich, celebrity artists (i.e., the ones you call “successful,” if we’re measuring money, not artistic merit or quality). It is true that they make much more than they actually need, while many other workers are severely underpaid. But that’s really just the tip of the inequality iceberg. And I didn’t even mention yet how much goes to Apple, Amazon, or a few other giant corporations like that.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    The problem with talking about musicians, and possibly artists in general, is that to the average person in the street what they do doesn’t look like work. They don’t help themselves by calling what they do “playing”. Oh, you want to get PAID for PLAYING? Jog on mate, I’ve got to do a day’s work down’t pit if I want to get paid. And so on. And again, there’s the fact that they would almost certainly do what they’re doing anyway, even if they didn’t get paid at all. This again, to the average working stiff, suggests that they don’t really deserve to get paid much for it if at all – I mean, if you’ll do it for nothing, well, do it for nothing. I certainly wouldn’t do my job for nothing, and I’d like it very much if I could get paid for doing something fun that I like.

    I think there is some benefit in supporting people who take the risk to produce art

    You’re making the argument for a universal basic income. I’m in favour. I’d probably still do the job I’m doing to supplement my UBI enough to buy toys and stuff for my kids (i.e. to buy toys (for me) and stuff (for my kids)), and to finance the size of house I like. But it would be good to know it was an option to live somewhere basic, without kids, and know I didn’t need to worry about rent or food or heating or water or clothing or transport, because my UBI would cover it. That would free up those inclined to, to create art. Got my vote.

  6. consciousness razor says

    And again, there’s the fact that they would almost certainly do what they’re doing anyway, even if they didn’t get paid at all.

    Certainly false. Musicians will have to do something else. If you don’t want us making music anymore, then we’ll just stop. Simple as that, right?

    This again, to the average working stiff, suggests that they don’t really deserve to get paid much for it if at all – I mean, if you’ll do it for nothing,

    You must have missed the part where we refuse to do it for nothing. All you actually had to work with was some other person’s baseless assumption that we’re happy to be treated like your slave. This is incorrect. We’re not.

    I certainly wouldn’t do my job for nothing, and I’d like it very much if I could get paid for doing something fun that I like.

    Then maybe look into another line of work, which you don’t hate quite so much.

    Take up cooking, for instance. That can be enjoyable. And guess what? Millions of people get paid every single day, all over the world, to do that work.

    Or do you like astronomy? I hear that you can be paid very well as an astronomer. Meanwhile, nobody ever gives a fuck that such people would still enjoy looking at the sky in their free time. They’d need to have free time, after doing some other job.

    And so on. Our society could go back to living in caves, or whatever sort of wretched existence you expect us to have, in order to satisfy your bizarre requirement that our lives should be consumed by tons of awful work that everybody hates, and they should not under any circumstances be worth living.

    Good luck selling that to people as a political/economic policy.

    Or just grow up. I am in fact one of your “average working stiffs,” in any sense that’s worth taking seriously. It is highly skilled work, which required years of education and experience, although the income certainly doesn’t reflect that. And yes I do enjoy it. But it’s not as glorious as you seem to believe it is, especially not when random assholes think that gives them a license to exploit me.

  7. says

    @sonofrojblake,
    I blocked your latest comment. You were already on probation because of that time you threatened Andreas Avester. You’re being an asshole.

  8. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    Quoting CR #6:

    “Musicians will have to do something else. If you don’t want us making music anymore, then we’ll just stop. Simple as that, right?”

    I know you’re being sarcastic here, but even making the statement makes one wonder how many other musicians you know.

    I know a lot of them. And when I was working in high tech, I had many coworkers who were doing engineering or project management for a living and STILL playing music to feel alive. Four out of five of my current bandmates have a “real job” doing something else. The 5th is The Boyfriend, who has spent most of his 40-plus career years being the only guy in all his various bands without a day job.

  9. brucegee1962 says

    What’s really happening is that you’re doing work; and you must be paid for that work, or else it is a kind of slavery.

    consciousness razor, why “must” you be paid for your work? What if it’s work that nobody wants?
    If you want to argue for a UBI, go ahead, I’m all for it. But call it what it is — don’t pretend you are paying people for “work” if all they’re doing is digging holes and then filling them up again, or writing books that nobody wants to read, or creating some other art that nobody cares about.
    Some people are really good at video games, or else they manage to have really good commentary, and they get followers and money for what they do. I suck at video games and have nothing interesting to say, but I’d love to get paid for playing games all day. So is that “work” for me?
    Steven King writes books that millions of people want to read. I write cheap MarySue schlock that you would need to pay people to read. If we’re both paid the same, he may have dependents to feed and end up quitting his writing and doing something that pays better, while I’m perfectly happy with whatever the going rate for writing “work” is.

    In my socialist utopia, I suppose artists would receive some bonus for success, but a large amount of the profits would go to support other artists. Nobody knows upfront, before releasing their art to the world, if it will be successful or not. I think there is some benefit in supporting people who take the risk to produce art, even if the risk does not ultimately pay out.

    My understanding is that this is exactly how the publishing industry works right now. 90% of all the new authors who get published are going to end up losing their publishers money. Every once in a while they hit on a King or a Rowling who makes them vast amounts, which cover the losses so that they can afford to continue launching all the money-losers. Of course, they’d love it if they were good enough to spot the wildly successful ones and only publish them, but no editor is good enough to do that. I believe the music industry works more or less the same way.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    @7: fair enough. I was intemperate and I apologise. In any case, the next two comments support the points I wanted to make.

    I dispute strongly that I ever threatened anyone, but don’t expect that to carry any weight.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    Also: compare the tone of my post, 5, and the response at 6. *I* am being an asshole? I would argue I responded in kind to a rather abusive post.

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