Artistic Freedom Act of 2003

Tuesday, May 6, 2003 could be a turning point in the contentious history of recording artists and record labels. On that day, hundreds of American musicians will converge on Albany, NY in support of the Artistic Freedom Act of 2003. If passed, the bill would give artists unprecedented freedom in negotiating and terminating recording contracts.

Legislation backed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, is now before both the New York State Assembly (assembly bill A6951) and Senate (senate bill S4548). It reflects widespread dissatisfaction among performers who often get locked into deals that determine the course of their careers for decades. Similar legislation is under consideration by the California Assembly, backed by Senator Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) and the Recording Artists Coalition.

"It is incumbent upon the legislature to ensure that creative artists are not unduly restrained in their efforts to obtain work, participate in the free market or to associate freely," reads a memorandum filed with the legislation. If enacted, the Artistic Freedom Act would let artists terminate recording contracts at the end of seven years, making them "free agents" like professional athletes not signed to any team. AFTRA officials have characterized the legislative proposals as "history-making . . . changing artist contract terms for the better permanently." The AFA would mirror NY state law limiting personal-service contracts for minors in the entertainment industry, and would limit contracts for "unrepresented artists" (ie, without legal counsel) to three years..

In Albany, members of the American Federation of Musicians, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and representatives of national labor organization the AFL-CIO will hold meetings with lawmakers in efforts to win support for the bill. They will also hold news conferences to help educate the public on the plight of recording artists nationwide.

Recording artists are also pressing federal regulators to provide more time for public commentary on proposed changes to rules governing media ownership. The Federal Communication Commission plans to adhere to an early June deadline to alter regulations on ownership caps for television and radio stations. At the end of April, a letter signed by 34 performers was sent to the FCC encouraging more discussion before making a final decision. "A refusal to allow Congress and the public to view and debate your specific proposal would be a tremendous disservice to the American public and the citizens who depend on these media structures for their livelihoods," the letter stated.

Many observers believe that the Republican-dominated agency will side with media conglomerates that are pushing for further deregulation. Artists reportedly fear that further consolidation in the broadcasting industry will reduce the diversity of programming available and make public exposure of new music increasingly difficult.

"We believe the record demonstrates both the value of existing media ownership rules and the dangers in permitting widespread consolidation of ownership," the musicians wrote. "We also believe the FCC has been negligent in listening to important stakeholder groups, like musicians, recording artists and radio professionals, to ensure their testimony is on the record." Signatories included Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett, David Crosby, Neil Diamond, Don Henley, the Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers), Billy Joel, Lenny Kaye, Toby Keith, Ian MacKaye, Ray Manzarek, Ellis L. Marsalis Jr., Tim McGraw, Sam Moore, Thurston Moore, Mya, Stevie Nicks, Joan Osborne, Van Dyke Parks, members of Pearl Jam, Sandy Pearlman, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Kevin Richardson, Patti Smith, Stephan Smith, Michael Stipe, Tom Waits, Jennifer Warnes, Saul Williams, and Nancy Wilson.

To date, the FCC has held only token public meetings on the proposed changes, instead inviting the public to submit comments to the agency's website. Further fueling the controversy is Chairman Michael Powell's refusal to divulge the precise nature of the changes, a situation that has also provoked harsh words from US Senators. Powell has stated that releasing the proposals wouldn't affect the outcome of the agency's vote, leading some observers to conclude that approval of looser ownership regulations is a done deal.