We're being screwed by Spotify! David Byrne, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills and Cake's John McCrea on the fight for artists' rights

"We need to have a sustainable system for people who create culture," says John McCrea, announcing a new coalition

Published February 25, 2014 5:24PM (EST)

Mike Mills, David Byrne, John McCrea     (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-895366p1.html'>Northfoto</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>AP/Owen Sweeney/<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-1803410p1.html'>JStone</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
Mike Mills, David Byrne, John McCrea (Northfoto via ShutterstockAP/Owen Sweeney/JStone via Shutterstock)

The musician John McCrea has led the Bay Area band Cake since the ‘90s and has begun more recently fighting for the rights of musicians in the digital age. He’s less ornery and assertive than David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven, but no less committed.

The group he’s helped put together, Content Creators Coalition, aims to work on behalf of a wide range of artists and artisans. After keeping much of its membership secret, the CCC begins to come out of the wilderness this week, with a rally and concert Tuesday (Feb. 25) at Le Poisson Rouge in New York dedicated to getting musicians paid when their music is played on the radio.

David Byrne, Mike Mills of R.E.M., alt-country’s Tift Merritt, experimental/jazz guitarist Mark Ribot, and others are among the performers.

The group plans a further rollout later this year. McCrea spoke to Salon last week about the crisis, and his short- and long-term ambitions.

Let’s start with Content Creators Coalition. Why do a new group, and why now?

First of all, why now? It should have happened 50 years ago. I see now as a finite window of opportunity where even really smart people are a little confused about what the future holds. It's perhaps a moment of opportunity wherein content creators can aggregate their power, their leverage and get something for ourselves that we should have gotten 50, 60 years ago. So amidst the confusion perhaps we can have a collective voice, have a little collective power. There are other artists groups that have done good work in the past. This group is not in any way to undermine their often noble efforts. But we think that there are areas in which a sort of overarching connectivity between content workers could do us a lot of good.

Let's talk about that specifically. You've conceived of the Content Creators Coalition not simply as a group of musicians but as a place for writers, artists, journalists, artisans, others. What do these groups, all of whom do different things, have in common? Why do they belong together?

We all have in common the fact that our work -- sometimes things that we do that take five years in a small room, as in the case of an author of a book -- is easily digitized and distributed, sometimes consensually, sometimes nonconsensually, and I think therein lies our commonality. We need to have a sustainable system for people who create culture. Independent filmmakers, authors of books, journalists increasingly are without much of a bulwark against giant market forces, giant corporations -- corporations the size of nation-states, who I guess we’re supposed to be negotiating with in a free market. But there's a problem with the size of some of these entities compared with the size of a band or a writer or a filmmaker.

It's not a fair fight at this point.

Yeah. We think that there needs to be aggregation of content-worker power.

But writers and musicians and artists have spent something like two centuries telling themselves that they're somehow alienated on the margins of society, that they're proud individuals. And the idea of independence has been important, especially for our generation. Indie rock and indie film, artists, and the DIY aesthetic have had an influence on all aspects of culture. It sounds like you're suggesting that artists and others see themselves differently than just as independent individuals.

We fetishize the idea of individuality at the expense of a lot of good things like community. Individuality at the expense of sustainability. It would make sense that the artists of the 20th century would fetishize individuality at the expense of community and sustainability, but I think that we need to move into a new zeitgeist if we can. And I see it as an imperative economically. That's not to say that people can't still be DIY; I mean, our band still is going to release our album on our own label and we do just about everything, a lot of what it takes to release an album on our own.  But there are just a lot of things that are out of our control now. And the epiphany moment for me, a few years back, was seeing a Newt Gingrich ad in front of one of our songs on YouTube and it was a particularly political song, and it was odd for me to not have a choice about whether or not to have a Newt Gingrich ad and also to be paid virtually nothing for that ad. That's when it struck me that most people that go into songwriting or filmmaking don't go into it for the money. There are many more surefire ways of making money. But I think it bothers most of us, the aesthetic insult of things like that. As well as the basic unfairness of a system that dictates to artists rather than allows them to set their own terms.

I wonder if there's a -- sticking to the history for just another minute -- is there a kind of myth of suffering involved in the starving artists, the self-destructing musician, that becomes part of the problem when artists are trying to organize and fight for fair treatment?


In other words, to make a steady living, to be paid for their work, that there's something impure or somehow wrong about that.  That that's not what an artist should be doing.

Yeah, you've isolated a very important point. It goes back probably farther than even van Gogh chopping off his ear, leading probably in part to an increase in the value of van Gogh paintings. The heroin needle stuck in the arm of the late '70s punk rocker increasing the value in our capitalistic system of the music product.

I think Greil Marcus called it, "death as a career move.”

Right, right.  And it's a great career move for the handlers.

Less so for the actual person who dies.

Right, so the first thing people do when an artist says, "Excuse me, I don't like this very much."  They say, "Oh, it's all about the money for you!"  It's sort of an Achilles' heel for artists.  But I think it's a smaller problem than the glaring unfairness and inequity of having huge corporations that monetize with or without an artist's consent.  And share little or nothing with that artist.

I think that the unfairness outweighs some of the now outmoded self-consciousness about caring about your physical well-being for artists. I know that we're not supposed to care about health insurance and our teeth and things like that. But again, all of this fetishizing of individuality at the expense of even our own physical wellbeing is -- my theory is it's a product of the industrial revolution in a way. People feeling dehumanized by the assembly line, feeling like a number, and then requiring of their artists, this almost muscular extreme assertion of individuality. But instead of creating actual individuality, and actual revolution, and actual true individual uniqueness, it gives everyone this outlet whereby they can let off steam on the weekends with their individuality product and then go back, on Monday morning, to the cubby. It subverts actual change, actual true identity.

Let’s move back to the present for a sec. You’ve kept your membership in the CCC to yourself until now; why do that and why come out now?

We wanted to build some sort of critical mass.  A lot of artists have spoken up individually and then they're attacked individually and sometimes quite viciously. And we wanted to show that it's actually about community. Artists can be concerned about a greater community than just themselves.

There's a point of view among digital utopians and neoliberal economists, even some musicians, that says that musicians and others just need to adjust to accommodate themselves to this bountiful new world.  Are you persuaded by that at all?

Most of the musicians I know are very resourceful. And sometimes it's resourceful like living-in-your-van kind of resourceful, sadly. And some of it is resourceful as in extricating yourself from your label deal, and releasing albums on your own label to cut costs as the value of recorded music descends into the toilet. Most of us, most people I know, have done some of that.

And we're all touring a lot more. And a lot of marriages are breaking up. People I know whose lives are falling apart because they're touring so much. But I think we're actually adapting quite well. The way in which we haven't adapted is to aggregate our power. There's no band that is big enough to have any kind of negotiating significance against a Google or even a Spotify or a Pandora. So as much as individuality is a lot of fun, we're going to have to aggregate our interests together and find significant means of taking action in our own interest.

Let's talk about what specifically you hope the group will do, in both the short and long term for musicians and others.  What are some examples of things you're aiming at?

It seems like the wave of the future is having really big companies distribute our music on streaming platforms. And as individual artists we really don't have a lot of negotiational leverage if we don't like the .00357 of a penny, or we can take a hike and probably a few people might take notice. But it's not really an effective way to negotiate and we think that we'd like to find a way to have more leverage in that marketplace.  And especially if streaming is going to be the way that we make a living from our recorded music.

We also think that there are still some avenues where we can still withhold our music. There are distribution platforms for writers that don't pay anything. We think writers should stand up and withdraw their services if they're not being paid. And we don't think it makes much sense if one writer does it -- but if a lot of writers do it all at once it makes a difference. This is old school in some ways. We also want to have some capacity for political actions, to make statements publicly. But not as an individual standing up on the shooting target practice.  We don't think that individuals should have to stand up. Artists who are good at making music are not necessarily -- they should be able to play music and not have to stand up and make political statements and be a target.

The concert you've organized for Tuesday is about radio royalties for performers. Currently royalties only go to songwriters. What's the issue here? Why is this important to you and the others?

Every democratic country in the world pays musicians for radio play. We think the United States is a good enough country to do that as well.  We’re on a list with countries like North Korea and Iran and Rwanda. So we're a prosperous country and we think it's sort of a statement of priorities when we don't pay Aretha Franklin for singing “Respect.” Now more than ever, artists are hanging by a thread. We're really not talking about, you know, Elton John here; we're talking about people who are middle-class and lower-middle-class musicians who need to eat.  We think it's important.  Again, if it's a college radio station or nonprofit radio station, we don't care. We're not asking to -- we don't want to close down nonprofit or low-profit radio, but if it's a large for-profit business that is monetizing our work through advertising, that's a different story.

For most of radio's existence, no royalties have gone to performers. It benefits the musician by providing exposure. What's changed to make the status quo untenable? Why doesn't that system work anymore?

Well , No. 1, you have to ask, "Why do I need the exposure?" In the olden days it was sort of record companies would give that away to radio hoping they would make large profits from selling recorded music. But people aren't buying recorded music, so it matters a lot less for us. It's true that being put on the radio may help an up-and-coming band sell concert tickets.  But it's difficult to tour all the way into your 60s, 70s and 80s. So some of these artists' music are being played for 30, 40 years and there's advertising that's gleaning value from that music.  I think it's an impure argument to throw these things in and say, "Oh, you're getting exposure from that and this."  And a lot of the things on that list are a lot less valuable to artists now.

The exposure doesn't lead to the same kind of payout for musicians? If people aren't paying for records.

Not if you're being paid .00 something of a fraction of a cent per song on Spotify.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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