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Lester Chambers Kickstarter Campaign to Support Artists’ Rights Using the Open Internet

· January 4, 2013

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Lester Chambers, lead singer of the Chambers Brothers, had hit records such as “Time Has Come Today,” but due to the terms in his band’s contracts with the record company, he didn’t receive royalties for decades.  Toward the beginning of the Occupy movement, when people were posting pictures of themselves with signs saying “I am the 99%”, he put up a picture explaining how he sympathizes with the movement because of his treatment by the music industry.  An excerpt from the picture:  “I went from 1967-1994 before I saw my first royalty check.  The music giants I recorded with only paid me for 7 of my albums.  I have never seen a penny in royalties from my other 10 albums I recorded.  Our hit song was licensed to over 100 films, TV & commercials without our permission.”  This picture went viral on Reddit, which led him to the Reddit community and its co-founder Alexis Ohanian.  Ohanian helped Chambers put together a Kickstarter campaign, which has already reached its goal of $39,000, but is still collecting donations through January 9.  A recent CNN article on the initiative also explained how unfair the contracts were:

“It’s a story of bad contracts — and record company executives refusing to even honor those, he said. The contract for ‘Time Has Come Today’ promised a small percentage of sales, but the record company kept finding expenses that came out of the band’s share before they saw any of it. . . Other albums were produced but never released, he said, although the ‘expenses’ for them kept racking up. To this day, he’s not sure how some of those albums are available for sale online or who’s getting the money for them.”

The CNN piece also featured the great line:  “‘We’ve got a lawyer now,’ Chambers said. ‘It’s called the computer.’”

Yet this project is not just about repaying Lester Chambers.  The website for the Kickstarter project has broader goals about artists’ rights and innovation on the Internet, which reflects Ohanian’s influence.  Ohanian, who stars in the video with Chambers and likely wrote the text of the project, was a major player in the SOPA opposition movement, and has been referred to as “Mayor of the Internet” and “running for President of the Internet.”  Some of the inspired lines demonstrating the optimism about the power of the Internet to lead to better deals for supporting artists include:

“The open internet can make right what the music industry has done so wrong.”

“The music industry may have screwed Lester Chambers for decades, but we the internet public can right their wrong.  Thanks to the open internet (things we fought for against SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, etc.), sites like Kickstarter and other innovations that are being worked on by entrepreneurs right now, we have the opportunity to do right by artists and cut out those who’d mistreat them. We have the opportunity to create solutions that will support artists in the digital world.”

“With this project, we have the opportunity to support not only the awesome work of a storied and talented musician, but we have the chance to stand up against the tyranny of the record industry. Stand with Lester, and stand for innovation that supports artists’ rights.”

It will be interesting to see what the success of this project leads to.  A related trend to disruption is disintermediation, the fancy term for “cutting out the middleman.”  This phenomenon allows authors and artists to connect directly with their fans for selling their works (some examples include the sites and platforms I discussed in this post on musicians, this post on the Humble Bundle for authors, this post on Amazon Kindle Direct for novelists, and this post on VHX for filmmakers).  Disintermediation increases efficiency, but it should ideally lead to sustainable ways of making a living off of one’s creations, rather than continuing to have to crowdfund.  This will happen by influencing behaviors of the many stakeholders in the marketplace:  Incumbents should recognize that they need to make some changes to the deals they offer artists going forward to remain a competitive, desirable option.  Artists should consider new innovative services and platforms for selling and sharing their works.  Entrepreneurs should continue to invest time and money into creating these services and platforms.  And consumers should take advantage of buying art from disruptive startups which generally costs less to them, in addition to being a better deal for the artists.

Intellectual Property

The Internet enables the free exchange of ideas and content that, in turn, promote creativity, commerce, and innovation. However, a balanced approach to copyright, trademarks, and patents is critical to this creative and entrepreneurial spirit the Internet has fostered. Consequently, it is our belief that the intellectual property system should encourage innovation, while not impeding new business models and open-source developments.