You’ve read so much about the music industry and its upstanding business practices that you likely think there isn’t anything else we could tell you that would come as a surprise. But some record label tactics are so covert that it takes a fair amount of digging just to find out they exist. Here are a few things record labels don’t want you to know that they still do in an effort to separate you — and the artists — from your hard-earned cash. Things like …
#5. Demanding Payment Virtually Any Time Music Is Played in Public
Obviously, if you want to use somebody’s music for commercial purposes, like in your movie or TV ad, you have to pay. So, you have to license it from a group like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, which makes sure record labels and artists collect the royalties they’re owed for this sort of thing. Makes sense, right? Well, hang on, because it’s about to get stupid.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that things like charging a crowd of people $2 each to listen to a band’s CD is illegal — you’re basically getting paid for a performance of somebody else’s music that you don’t own the rights to. But the definition of the word “performance” is mind-bogglingly vast when it comes to music royalties.
“That’ll be six bucks.”
For example, did you know that a “public performance” includes a coffee shop owner putting a CD or an MP3 player behind the counter to play some Mumford & Sons as background music? Or that it counts as a performance if a shop wants to play music over the phone while people are on hold? That’s why hold music is almost always bland, instrumental filler — keeping you on hold to a computer algorithm’s idea of a “marimba jam” is a lot less expensive than having Usher keep your hold time sexy. ASCAP explains it all in this depressingly comprehensive guide to all the ways you can pay for the right to listen to the music you already own when other people who don’t also own it might be close enough to hear it too.
They even take time out to lecture you for not considering the artist, who might be getting shafted out of their four-tenths of a cent royalty when you choose to dance to “Wonderful Tonight” at your wedding reception without asking Clapton first:
“This rule, however, does not apply to us.”
Oh, and they also argued that royalties should be collected on ringtones. Not on the purchase of ringtones, mind you; they already have that. Rather, they wanted to be paid every time the phone rings. In other words, when a phone rings in a crowded movie theater, someone out there believes you’ve just been entertained to such a degree that an additional outlay of cash is warranted.
Their attempts to cash in every time a song is even thought about being listened to haven’t always been successful, though. They wanted to collect on those 30-second samples you listen to before actually purchasing a song, which is kind of like the government taxing the free pizza samples you eat at the grocery store as income. Or maybe it’s nothing like that … we’re not record executives. We can assure you it’s just as stupid, though.
#4. Reducing Sound Quality So You Perceive a Song as “Louder”
Due to the way the human brain works, there is a formula for making a song into a hit (we broke down the numbers here), and one of the most important elements for the last few decades has been “loudness.” But wait a second — how can record companies determine how “loud” a song is when we’re the ones with our hands on the volume knob?
It has to do with how the track is engineered. The trend started as far back as the days of jukeboxes, when producers noted that certain tracks got better reactions than others, and a lot of it came down to how loud the song was perceived to be when it started playing. Over the years, through science that produces screenshots like this …
Oh, man, we haven’t heard that song in ages!
… it was discovered that you could use a technique called dynamic range compression to amplify the quieter parts of the melody to match the louder tracks like drums and bass. The difference is demonstrated masterfully here:
The result is a song that has a more “in your face” quality at first listen. And that’s exactly what record labels want: a song that grabs your attention right away. So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s sort of ruining the music. See, there used to be limits to how horribly you could mangle the dynamics of a song when analog equipment was the only way to record. But digital technology did away with that shit, and now record labels are free to blast your eardrums with all the unnecessary noise they think you can handle. In many cases, classic albums from the analog days were taken back into the studio, ruined, and then marketed as “digitally remastered.”
Because if there’s one thing Depeche Mode needed in order to be a good band, it was loudness.
That’s how we found ourselves staring down the business end of the Loudness War, the music industry’s attempt to address the growing prevalence of shitty ear bud headphones turning every song up to 11.
And the thing is, most of you didn’t even know this was happening until now — it’s hard to perceive what’s wrong until you hear the unaltered version. This happened with Metallica’s album Death Magnetic. On the same day the album was released to retail outlets, it was also made available as a playable download in the video game Guitar Hero. It didn’t take especially attentive fans long to notice that the non-game album sounds like complete ass when compared to the Guitar Hero version. Why? Because the latter hadn’t had its levels pegged to eliminate all range:
Because if there’s one thing Metallica needed help with, it was loudness.
Fans started an online petition to force the band to remaster the album, and Lars Ulrich responded exactly in the manner you’d expect the guy who destroyed Napster to reply.
The worst part about all of this is that it’s more than just a matter of taste. Your booty may crave the beat, but your brain and ears need dynamics and sound diversity to keep engaged. Without them, one succumbs to ear fatigue, and there’s even danger of actual hearing loss. There hasn’t been a Metallica album worth that kind of risk since the mid-’80s.
Know what? Let’s just let Metallica have this one.
#3. Straight Up Paying to Get Their Song on the Radio
Hey, do you remember when, for a brief period of time, Limp Bizkit was the biggest band in the world? Ever wonder how that whole thing happened?
You may have heard of payola before — it’s the shady practice of paying radio station programmers and disc jockeys cash under the table to include a specific song or group of songs in their rotation. It was outlawed at one point, but that doesn’t mean it went away. They call it pay-for-play now, and record labels get around the illegal part by being totally up front when a cash exchange takes place. That’s how we wound up with Limp Bizkit, and we’re not being sarcastic — it was literally a pay-for-play scheme that helped propel Limp Bizkit from terrible rap-rock band to terrible rap-rock band that we heard all the time for a few years there in the early 2000s.
“Sing along, y’all! Doesn’t matter what, just make some shit up.”
In a perfectly legal deal between Flip/Interscope Records and Portland, Oregon’s KUFO-FM, Limp Bizkit’s early single “Counterfeit” (which is presumably about Fred Durst’s degree from rap college) was played 50 times on the station over the span of five weeks in exchange for $5,000 from the label. They were able to get away with this skirting of payola laws by simply adding a blurb that said “Brought to you by Flip/Interscope” at the beginning of the song.
And now, get ready for the douchiest quote you’ll read for at least a few more sentences:
“Pay-for-play is the idea that all of the subtle quid pro quo that was going on in the past bubbles to the surface and becomes a line item in people’s budgets.”
“Wait, why am I doing this, again? I don’t even own a CD player.”
Translation: Fuck you, it’s legal now because we said it’s legal. That’s a quote from Tom Barnes, the man who helped broker the shady radio arrangement. His efforts cleared the way for Limp Bizkit to play a well-attended show in one of the biggest hipster strongholds in all the land. Radio station interest in the band took off from there. Fast forward to right now and Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water is something you wish you hadn’t just been reminded of.