Musicians fight for their right to contract parity. Fed up with label politics, superstar artists are organizing
Beck, Thom Yorke
Credit: Thom Yorke and Beck: Steve Jennings:

Pop stars of the world, unite! That, more or less, is the manifesto of the Recording Artists’ Coalition (RAC), a collective of music stars who say they want a revolution. The group, which has spent the last two years fighting for laws to create a more artist-friendly music biz, fired its biggest salvo yet on Feb. 26, with a set of pre-Grammy shows — dubbed the Concerts for Artists’ Rights — held simultaneously at four Southern California venues. Beck, Sheryl Crow, the Eagles, No Doubt, Eddie Vedder, Weezer, the Dixie Chicks, Billy Joel, and other rockers-cum-lobbyists grossed an estimated $2.7 million toward a war chest for future legislative battles.

”I think probably just about every group of workers has its own representation, whether you’re talking about auto workers or strawberry pickers or whatever,” says Offspring frontman Dexter Holland (whose multiplatinum band hasn’t had to pick many strawberries lately). ”But there’s [been] no real group like that for musicians.” The RAC’s roughly 140 members, who also include Bruce Springsteen, Christina Aguilera, and Alanis Morissette, plan to take their case for recording-industry reform to the halls of Congress and state legislatures.

Don Henley and Sheryl Crow founded the RAC in 2000 in response to a quietly passed U.S. copyright law classifying recordings as works-for-hire, a change that artists believed would prevent them from ever recovering ownership of their music. The RAC convinced Congress to overturn the offending law and has since gained momentum in the face of increasing consolidation of labels, radio stations, and concert promoters; battles over revenue from online-music services; and claims that the industry consistently underpays royalties (a charge made by both Courtney Love and the Dixie Chicks in still-pending lawsuits; their former labels deny it).

”This isn’t disgruntled, bitter musicians who have nothing better to do,” says RAC member Beck. ”This is just getting to the point where we’ve seen enough, where it’s unconscionable not to speak up — it’s a point of integrity.” Disgruntled or not, the loud mooing of cash cows is hurting ears at the five major music conglomerates (Sony, Universal, BMG, EMI, and Warner, which shares a corporate parent with EW). The companies already face declining sales, a run of high-profile flops, and teens who see songs as little more than freely downloadable data. ”It’s always been kind of hip for artists to trash their record companies — it’s sort of the rock & roll mentality,” says Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the record companies’ lobbying group. ”But…these days, the public griping about money just gives fans the excuse they’re looking for to justify their downloading of music.”

Rosen says the formation of the RAC is ”great”; she just wishes its members would use their clout to fight Internet pirates and other foes common to labels and artists. But for now, their top priority is less compatible with the RIAA’s interests; the artists’ group is trying to restrict how long acts can be bound to labels. The first step: lobbying the California state legislature to overturn an RIAA-endorsed amendment that effectively exempts musicians from a state law limiting personal-services contracts to seven years.

”It seems pretty obviously discriminatory,” says Holland. The music industry disagrees, pointing out that contracts dictate the number of albums to be delivered, not a period of time. ”Look at Peter Gabriel,” says Miles Copeland, president of Universal-distributed Ark 21 Records. ”He’s a wonderful man, incredibly talented — but it takes him five years to make a record.”