Wisconsin, the 30th state, is famous for a number of things including the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers, cheese, and beer; each one exceptional in its own right. However, in the wake of a victorious Super Bowl XLV, the ‘Copper State’ added an unexpected political element to its fame. Due to a spark ignited on Valentine’s Day 2011, Wisconsin is now the battleground over the future of unions and workers’ rights.
In early February, newly elected Governor Scott Walker introduced legislation that he believes will counter a projected $3.6 Billion(with a B) two-year budget shortfall. The proposed ‘Budget Repair Bill’ aims to correct Wisconsin’s deficit by increasing contributions Public union workers have to pay toward their benefits and retirement pensions. The bill also calls for an end to collective bargaining rights by Public unions, which would undoubtedly eliminate a time-honored American labor tenet often used to negotiate fair minimum wages, workplace safety and employee healthcare.
On Valentine’s Day, a group of graduate students initiated a historic movement in protest of the Bill, resulting in thousands of citizens storming the State Capitol to hold impassioned, but peaceful demonstrations[Video]. Since then, Madison has seen about a half-million dissidents and a tsunami of national medial attention. While union membership is at its lowest since the 1930’s, many citizens advocate the need for unions to prevent companies from disregarding workers’ rights. In contrast, supporters of the Budget Repair Bill are adamant about the need to reign in unions as a means to regain fiscal solvency in States.
The budget bill battle won’t be the only union fight to effect Wisconsin in the coming months. Ironically, the beloved Green Bay Packers (and the other 31 NFL teams) may not take the field next fall due to current gridlocked collective bargaining negotiations between the NFL players’ union and NFL team owners [NFL Lockout]. Both sides of the Wisconsin political argument point to the NFL dispute as evidence of the effectiveness/futility of unions’ negotiating power, depending on their individual perspective.
Judging by Wisconsin and the NFL, the ability to collectively bargain is a very powerful tool that potentially leads to either balanced compromises or catastrophic stalemates with enormous consequences. How would such a situation work in the Hip Hop industry?
Question: Would hip hop artists benefit from forming a Union and establishing collective bargaining rights?
In a courageous stand against powerful record companies, rocker Courtney Love penned a no holds barred plea to the music industry about the need to form a Union that would protect recording artists’ rights and long-term interests. Hip Hop Godfather, Russell Simmons and pioneer artist KRS-One echoed Courtney’s call. In 2003, DMX endorsed the idea as well, revealing that he “..made Def Jam $122 Million in one year”, for which he was rewarded a $3 Million loan. [The Letter]
There are countless fine print items and revenue streams in today’s recording contracts and the Labels know them all (See Industry Rule 4080). Usually, the only thing standing between a decent record deal and a blinged-out death certificate is the knowledge, skill-level and character of the artist’s attorney. Even with an excellent lawyer, the surplus of hungry rappers eager to sign with anybody for anything gives Labels dominating control of the market. As a result, 360 deals (Hip Hop’s equivalent of sub-prime mortgages) have become an industry standard.
Similar to the NFL and worker unions, an Artist Union would provide a table for emcees to collectively bargain with Labels for things like royalty rates, healthcare options, profit-sharing, and/or creative control of their work. This would aid in preventing instances like DJ Kool Herc (father of Hip Hop) needing fundraisers to pay for a much-needed surgery due to the fact he has no health insurance. Unlike artists today, so many of the originators of the craft were not privy to information about the music business, including revenue generated from publishing and merchandising. Their only goal was to expose the world to the new pulse of America’s youth. As Hip Hop evolved over the last 30 years, artists like Kool Herc made billions (with a B) in profits for Labels, but they’ve received almost no long-term recompense for life after rap.
However, as seen in the upcoming possibility of an NFL lockout, one would also have to ponder the consequences of an unresolved disagreement involving an Artist Union. For example, if a union existed in 1992 and the artists made an unsuccessful attempt at negotiating increased ownership of their music, the outcome would have been drastic to say the least. When negotiations come to a grinding halt and each side is unwilling to budge, the Artist Union goes on strike and the Labels subsequently shelve all albums slated for release that year. The fans and the culture are the hardest hit because, in this particular situation, the world never hears albums like The Chronic by Dr. Dre, or the classic Live and Let Die by Kool G Rap and DJ Polo(plus many others). Would the hip hop community be willing to risk music like this never seeing the light of day; for the sake of a business dispute?
What do you think? Would an Artists’ Union be beneficial or detrimental to the Hip Hop industry? Please comment below and thanks for reading!