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Unions Support Artist Rights Bill

Labor: State legislation, opposed by record labels, would in effect free musicians from lengthy contracts.


Four powerful labor organizations will enter the artist rights fray this week, supporting state legislation that could open the door to free agency for recording acts.

On Wednesday, leaders from the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the California Federation of Labor and the Hollywood Entertainment Labor Council are expected to announce their endorsement of a bill that would repeal an amendment in the state labor code that, in effect, extends contracts for recording acts longer than for other workers.

The labor groups, which represent more than 4 million workers in dozens of guilds and unions, intend to increase the pressure on lawmakers during an "Artists Lobby Day" in Sacramento that will include appearances by more than a dozen music stars--including Courtney Love, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Don Henley and Carole King as well as members of Los Lobos, Offspring and Matchbox Twenty and former members of Rage Against the Machine.

"This isn't just a rock-star issue anymore," said Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), who recently introduced the legislation on behalf of the artist community. "We've got pipe fitters and building trade laborers and all kinds of unions coming out in support of this battle as a workers issue now."

Aligning itself with the Recording Artists Coalition, big labor is preparing to square off against the Big Five music corporations: France's Vivendi Universal, Japan's Sony Corp., Germany's Bertelsmann, Britain's EMI Group and New York-based AOL Time Warner Inc. The five global giants and their Washington-based lobbying arm, the Recording Industry Assn. of America, adamantly oppose Murray's bill.

Top music executives already have contacted Gov. Gray Davis and asked him to veto the legislation, contending that it would damage the economy by forcing record companies to leave California--a threat that could result in the loss of nearly 25,000 jobs and $1 billion in wages.

Last month the RIAA launched a campaign to kill Murray's bill, unleashing its lobbying team in Sacramento and delivering packages of information critical of the bill. The RIAA is warning legislators that passage of the bill will force companies to stop signing California-based artists, fire employees and restrict future investments in new talent.

"The increased financial risk from any such amendments may leave record companies no choice but to decrease the number of new artists they sign and promote," the RIAA said in a handout to lawmakers. "Shortening the terms of California recording contracts or restricting the availability of damages would jeopardize the recording companies' ability to recover their investments and earn profits from their contracts with successful California-based artists."

The statute that is the focus of Murray's bill was enacted in the late 1890s but achieved prominence 50 years ago after a legal battle by film star Olivia de Havilland to free actors from long-term studio deals. De Havilland's court case allowed actors, for the first time, to negotiate employment contracts based on their fair-market value. Section 2855 sanctioned free agency for other California workers performing service jobs, such as architects, commercial artists, designers and recording acts.

In 1985, the RIAA launched an effort to extend the statute to 10 years. When those efforts failed, the RIAA asked legislators to grant music labels a "special exemption to the law"' and give them the right to sue artists for damages resulting from undelivered albums. Industry lobbyists contendedthat record companies make large investments in an artist's career based on the promise that the act would deliver a certain number of albums under the contract--typically seven recordings.

Artists put up little resistance to the amendment's passage in 1987.

But the debate at that time failed to include the fact that labels typically require successful acts to spend two years per project touring and making videos and TV appearances to help boost sales. It would take 14 years, artists say, for the average act to complete its obligations under a standard agreement.

This time, however, music acts have launched their own trade group and hired a team of lobbyists to pressure lawmakers to repeal the amendment. With big labor on their side, the coalition says it is prepared to take on the foreign-owned corporations that dominate the record business and stop them from trying to dictate California labor policy.

Murray anticipates a bitter showdown.

"Every worker in this state deserves a fair contract--artists included," Murray said. "The foreign-owned music giants can threaten to pack up and leave all they want. California is an artist-friendly state."

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