NEW YORK – It's time to pay the piper.
That's what some musicians are saying as they struggle to separate themselves from a recording industry they say has shackled them, financially and artistically, for too long.
From Bryan Adams to Weezer, Christina Aguilera to Dwight Yoakam, Courtney Love to the estate of deceased jazz singer Sarah Vaughn, they're trying to shake off those chains of song.
"There's a heck of a lot of dissatisfaction among recording artists, from the length of a contract to the way record companies treat artists," said industry attorney Jay Rosenthal.
Rosenthal is a lawyer for the Recording Artists Coalition, a four-year-old "movement" of about 140 musicians fighting for the legal rights of the singers, guitarists, tambourine players and flautists who sing the songs America taps its toes to.
On Tuesday, Feb. 26 — the night before the Grammy's — more than a dozen performers, including The Dixie Chicks, Beck, No Doubt and others, will take the stage at four California auditoriums for the "Concerts for Artist Rights," led largely by ex-Eagle Don Henley.
Perhaps the first thing on RAC's agenda is making it clear that, although the Recording Industry Association of America represents music companies like Sony Music, Columbia House and Virgin Records, RIAA doesn't speak for musicians.
"On Capitol Hill, there's never really been any understanding that the voice of the artists is sometimes different from the voice of the record company," Rosenthal said.
RIAA spokeswoman Amy Weiss said her group is all for musicians having their own voice in Washington, and that the two organizations will be defending common interests such as anti-piracy measures and Webcast royalties.
"Artists are the lifeblood of our industry," she said. "We have more issues in common than not, and it's important that we work together."
The central issue, Los Angeles music litigator Paul Karl Lukacs said, is that record labels treat their industry as just another business, as if they're selling groceries or widgets, ignoring the creative aspect of music.
"Without artists, labels are banks with CD cases," Lukacs said. "You don't buy something because it's on the label, you buy the CD because of the artist, and it's the artist who is generating the profits and who is the reason for the label's existence."
Yet artists are forced to use their companies' choice of producers and work under what RAC says are outdated contracts. And when an artist completes an album, the master recordings belong to the company.
But Weiss said musicians are hardly babes in the woods when they enter agreements.
"Artists enter contracts willingly," she said. "For every artist who enters a contract, they have a number of lawyers and managers with them."
Rosenthal said another issue is that, if a performer can't complete an album, he can't declare bankruptcy to nullify the contract. And even if an artist does put out an album, half or more of the cost of the promotional campaign is taken out of his share of the profits.
"An artist can sell a million records and never see a royalty," Rosenthal said.
But labels are hardly reaping huge rewards at the artists' expense, Weiss said. Musicians must realize companies are in the music trade for a simple reason: to make money.
"It's important to keep in mind that the record companies are in a high-risk industry and that the record industry is a business," she said. "The companies need to make back the money that they invested."
But consumers are affected too, Rosenthal said. Companies can exert creative influence, meaning the music that consumers hear is what the labels want, not what the musicians want.
"If an artist wants to break out and do something different, the label often doesn't," Rosenthal said.
By not promoting an album, companies can help ensure that a musician fails. Yet, the same companies will lavish millions of dollars on "sure things" instead of using the money on lesser-known artists.
However, Weiss disagreed with that and said labels are the only reason most new musicians are heard.
"We invest over $1 billion a year on new artists and 90 percent of new artists fail to make a profit," she said. "Record companies absorb those losses. If they can't be assured that they can't recover their investment, they may have to limit their risks by investing in fewer new artists."
But Rosenthal pointed to the Mariah Carey fiasco, which saw the stressed-out diva basically paid to leave Virgin Records after her album failed to perform well enough.
Though Tuesday's concerts are meant to cast the spotlight on RAC's battle, Rosenthal said he couldn't help seeing a little justice played out in the Carey buyout.
"The young artists getting paid (nothing) and Mariah Carey getting paid way too much," he said. "The artist has always been a commodity, but this is a sign of the record labels being hoisted by their own petard."