Blake Morgan Takes On Music Industry Tradition With IRespectMusic
[This transcript is excerpted from a special edition of Art of the Song entitled The State of the Music Biz. Click here to listen to the complete program as broadcast on Public Radio.]
Viv: Next we’ll hear from New York musician Blake Morgan. Blake offers a unique perspective on the industry as he wears several hats. He’s a singer song writer, producer, and indie record label owner. Here are his thoughts.
Blake Morgan: We do live in an “American Idol” culture. We do live in a “Voice” culture. But that’s not really the musical culture. I’m actually quite happy to say. And I think that those shows and that kind of thinking really leads to this perception that I think is finally changing. But the perception is that, like you said, there are two kinds of musicians: there’s Justin Timberlake and then there are people who tend bar. And there’s nobody in the middle. And, of course, the opposite is what’s true. Which is that there’s a vast middle class in music of people who are paying their mortgages and their car insurance and their health insurance and putting their kids through school as recording artists or as songwriters or as both or as performers or as players or as publishers. That middle class, like we inherently know in this country, that’s where the magic in this country really lives. That’s the heart and the lifeblood of this country and it’s no less true for music. When you hear stats like 46% fewer musicians, professional musicians, or 80% fewer songwriters in Nashville, it’s horrifying. Especially when these art forms are our birthright as Americans. I think that that’s really changed. I’ve watched it change over the last year where people understand that there are musicians outside of Beyoncé and the people who are tending bar. By the way, the artist who is tending bar in order to fund their music and feed their families; there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s honorable and I have friends who do it and I’m proud of them. So, that’s ok too. But music should be a meritocracy, like so many other things. And right now it, for the last ten years, it’s been less so than ever. In music, the next thing has always come from the outskirts. It’s always come from the disenfranchised. That’s where great indie bands and grunge came from. That’s where hip hop came from. That’s where punk music came from. That’s where rock and roll came from. That’s where jazz came from. And thank goodness they all did. But what’s happened in music, more than ever, is I think sometimes people understand somehow what happens in movies even better than they understand what happens in music and I think we all kind of understand viscerally that we’re more likely to see Transformers 9 than we are likely to see Silver Linings Playbook 2. It’s a blockbuster mentality in Hollywood. The blockbuster mentality is true of music now I think more than ever. Where gigantic corporations are looking to meet their bottom line this quarter. They’re not even thinking as far ahead as next quarter let alone next year, or two records down the road. They’re just desperate to make their bottom line now. And that leads to a blockbuster mentality artistically in music and I think that’s really unhealthy for American music. IRespectMusic has just come about in a completely amazing, surprising, almost shocking way where we’ve found ourselves in the midst of a massive, legitimate, joyous, and productive grassroots movement in this country. Arguably the largest in American music history. Where music makers and music lovers are standing up and standing together to say, very simply, that artists should be paid for their work. Just like any other people. Just like any other Americans. Plumbers should be paid for their work and carpenters should be paid for their work and doctors should be paid for their work and musicians should be paid for their work. And I’m sure that, your listeners have noticed and have read and have heard and have seen artists standing up across the country in response to Pandora, in response to Spotify, in response to big radio. None of who pay artists appropriately, if at all. So, about a year and a half ago, I became a blip on the artist advocacy radar myself when I responded to an email I’d gotten from the founder of Pandora, Tim Westergren, who had written to several thousand artists encouraging us to sign onto an awesome letter that Pandora was going to send with its awesomeness to Congress talking about how awesome Pandora is and that we think it’s awesome. I don’t know what was going on with me that day, but I just happened to write back. It’s one of those folksy corporate emails where it comes directly from the individual. So it came from Mr. Westergren himself. For whatever reason I decided to write back and I wrote back and I said “Mr. Westergren, I’d love to believe your heart’s in the right place but I know that this letter is, in fact, going to be taken to Congress to lobby them to lower my royalties. So you’re asking me to sign onto something that’s going to be used to hurt me.” And I just sent it back, it was very respectful. I sent it back and I didn’t think anything of it. I went about my day and a few hours later I sent it to a friend of mine just as a joke. I said “Hey I just think you’ll get a kick out of this, I don’t know why I wrote back but there you go”. And he called me almost immediately and said, “Are you going to blog this?” and I said “No” and he said “Well, can I blog it?” And I said “Sure”. So he did. And it really blew up. It got a lot of people’s attention. Because of that I got a second email from Mr. Westergren. This one definitely felt like, I don’t know if this is the case, but it certainly felt like a group of people in a room wrote this email. It was a serious reply. In the email, they said “You know, we’re not seeking to lower artist’s royalties substantially at all” (which is patently untrue). They also said “We’re looking, in fact, for a way for musicians to participate in the business”. And that was the line that I could just feel my emotional sleeves being rolled up saying “Ok, well now I’m really going to respond”. And I did. I said, “You know, that’s a really offensive line. Because it’s not that musicians should be able to participate in the business. Musicians are your business. We’re your only business. We make your only product.” The Huffington Post got hold of this email exchange and they published it and it really really made waves. It really took off. In fact, the next morning Pandora lost $130 million dollars on the stock market, because of the email exchange being published. Shortly after that, Pandora pulled their signature legislation, and that really felt like a huge victory to music makers. We’ve been beaten up for about ten years, as I’m sure you know. This really felt like a win, it was a feeling we were not accustomed to. So I thought to myself “Well you know, wait a minute now, what else could we do?” They spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying and I wrote a couple emails and other artists courageously stood up before I did, and during while I did, and after I did and it’s really galvanized people. What would be that message? How would we make sure that Pandora would never come back to fight to try to remove our digital royalties. Well, what if we tried to get those royalties everywhere? That’s really what was the genesis of IRespectMusic. Here’s the thing: some people still don’t know that the United States is the only democratic country in the world where artists don’t get paid for radio airplay. For example, when I say RESPECT you probably think of Aretha Franklin. But Aretha Franklin has never made a penny from that song being on the radio. Otis Redding wrote the song and he gets paid, as he should, certainly not as much as he should. But Aretha gets nothing. The short list of countries that stand with the United States in this distinction include North Korea, Iran, Rwanda, China. That’s definitely a list that we want the United States to be on. I think, somewhat as homage to Aretha, that’s where the idea of IRespectMusic came. And I wrote an op-ed at the end of last year that used those three words for the first time and then we launched the site just a few weeks after that. The idea was very simple, to petition Congress, and specifically the House Intellectual Property sub-committee, to support artists pay for radio play. People just began, they saw me do it, I never asked anyone to do it, but they saw me post a photo holding up the #IRespectMusic and just thousands upon thousands and then tens of thousands of people started doing the same thing. If you go to irespectmusic.org you can see a lot of those photos. There are more all the time. It’s rock stars and movie stars, but it’s also classrooms and kids and music lovers. That’s what this campaign is about: it’s a positive joyful campaign saying, “Look, enough’s enough. It’s time that Aretha Franklin and other iconic American artists get paid for their work”.