Multiple music advocacy groups — including the Music Artists Coalition, the Black Music Action Coalition, Songwriters of North America, and the union SAG-AFTRA — threw their support behind California State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez’s newly introduced FAIR Act on Friday. The Free Artists from Industry Restrictions Act (also known as bill AB 1385) would cap recording contracts for California-based artists or California-based music companies at seven years, restoring a protection that exists for workers in other fields in the state but does not extend to musicians or actors.
“Streaming has been an unprecedented bonanza for the record labels, but not so for artists,” said Irving Azoff, founder of the Music Artists Coalition, in a statement. “It is unfair that the only Californians excluded from the protection of the Seven Year Statute are recording artists. We ask our record label partners and members of the California legislature to join us and support this important initiative. We must protect artists and modernize this archaic law.”
California has protected workers’ flexibility by limiting the duration of personal service contracts since the 19th century. Contracts were initially limited to two years; that threshold rose to seven years in 1931. But standard contracts in the music industry often lock artists in for the course of five, six, or even seven albums. It takes most acts more than seven years to produce that much music, so in 1987, record labels successfully lobbied to amend the law so that musicians were no longer protected.
At the time, the Recording Industry Association of America argued that labels had to invest heavily in artists in the early days to help them acquire commercial momentum, but those acts were then able to duck out of a record deal before fulfilling their contractual obligations and allowing that label to make their money back. As a result of the changes to the bill, recording artists were unable to leave their deal after seven years unless they agreed to pay their label to make up for profits the company would have made on the future albums that were initially part of the contract.
Artists have fought against this amendment before. In 2001, the California legislature hosted hearings on the issue. “To hear the RIAA tell it, it was like the poor little record companies were being taken advantage of by the big, bad, greedy artists — when in fact, it was exactly the opposite,” attorney Jay Cooper told The Los Angeles Times at the time. “Artists can’t just get a pass on this issue,” an RIAA spokesperson hit back. “Somebody has got to come up with the money to cover damages that the companies incur.” The law was not amended.
State Assemblywoman Gonzalez, the various advocacy groups, and SAG-AFTRA hope that the conversation will be different at a time when artists’ rights conversations have crashed into the mainstream and the rise of streaming has drastically reduced the costs incurred by labels when releasing music.
“The landscape of the entertainment industry has dramatically changed, yet companies still benefit from outdated laws that allow them to wield an overwhelming amount of control over artists,” Assemblywoman Gonzalez said in a statement on Friday. “No worker should ever be bound to an unreasonable contract that holds them back from making decisions about their own livelihood.”