Testimony of Patti Austin, Recording Artist
California State Senate Hearings on Recording Artist Exemption to Seven Year Statute
Before the California State Senate
Select Committee on the Entertainment Industry
Hearings on Recording Artist Exemption to Seven Year Statute
(Labor Law Section 2855 (b))
September 5, 2001
My name is Patti Austin, and I have 45 years of experience in the entertainment industry. During my career, I have appeared in concert halls and theaters and on radio, television, films, recordings and commercials. I am happy to see that this Committee is considering repealing the recording artist exemption to the seven year California Labor Code, which unjustly denies recording artists the rights and protections applicable to all other California workers, and appreciate the opportunity to testify.
Music is my blood -- my father was a jazz trombonist and my godparents are the music legends Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington. I first hit the stage at four at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Iíve been a recording artist for about 10 different labels and released 15 albums. Iíve also worked as a background singer, jingle singer, composer, actress and comedian.
I have performed two songs that were nominated for an Academy Award and have received three Grammy nominations.
I joined AFTRA, the labor union that represents recording artists, more than 30 years ago. I have been successful enough to have been releasing solo albums for more than 20 years, with my most recent album being released this year. However, despite my success, I must diversify because it is so difficult to support myself solely as a recording artist.
Because of the limited number of major record companies, many items are "non-negotiable" for older, established artists, as well as for new artists. For example, many of us do not have the power to negotiate for a limited number of option periods, so that the contract could be completed within seven years, for a "key-man" clause, so that if the person with whom you signed the contract leaves the label, you can leave too, for a "non-assignability" clause, so that the label cannot arbitrarily move you to another label, or even for a provision obligating the company to release or promote your records. As I explain below, my inability to negotiate for each of these items has harmed my career. Artists, because of our limited leverage when negotiating contracts with record companies, need more ways that we can free ourselves from these onerous contracts when circumstances change. We should, at the very least, receive the benefit of Californiaís statute limiting personal service contracts to seven years.
Section 2855(b), which exempts recording artists from the provision of the California Labor Code which limits personal service contracts to seven years, must be repealed. There is no legitimate reason that recording artists should be treated less favorably than other workers.
Recording contracts can be some of the most onerous of any contracts that I have seen in the entertainment industry, and I have seen a lot. However, the seven year law protects me in other areas but not in my recording work, where I need this protection the most. Many of the recording contracts that I have signed required that I pay for all of the production and a portion of the marketing of my recordings out of my small royalty before I ever received any royalty payment. No other entertainment industry contracts I have seen I have such provisions. Movies containing my vocals donít have to earn a profit before I get paid, and I certainly donít have to pay for the entire cost of the film!
I would like to discuss situations that have happened to me in my career as a recording artist that exemplify the need to permit artists to terminate record contracts. One of them, I am going through right now. I signed to Qwest Records, Quincy Jonesí label. Quincy Jones is my godfather and a man I trust, respect and enjoy working with, which was the major reason I signed to Qwest. When America Online and Time Warner merged, Warner Brothers Records bought out Qwest Records and assigned me to Warner Jazz, where Quincy is no longer actively involved. I had no right to say where I wanted to go or whom I wanted to work with. Iím still obligated to record several more albums, only now I owe them to Warner Jazz instead of Qwest. With the well-reported changes occurring at AOL/Time Warner, who knows what the future holds for me there. Even if it does not release or promote my recordings, AOL/Time Warner, however, will still be able to hold me to my original Qwest contract.
My current situation is not unusual. In the mid-1970s, I sang on the David Frost Show on a Friday, and Clive Davis saw the show. He called me on Saturday and said he wanted to sign me to Columbia. On Monday, I went and met with Clive, the papers were already drawn up, and on Tuesday I signed the deal. On Wednesday I was a Columbia artist Ė that quickly. Clive Davis already had a long track record of making "stars" and had a reputation for being one of the few record company execs who not only understood the business but also the artist and the music as well. So obviously, I wanted to work with him very much. The following week, however, Clive was fired from Columbia, yet I was stuck there. I signed the contract because of Clive Davis, who was no longer there, yet Columbia held me to the contract and forced me to make singles that it never released. Eventually, I was lucky enough to negotiate my way to freedom.
Within the entertainment industry, recording contracts are notoriously unfair to the artist, yet everyone else receives the protection of Section 2855. Section 2855(b) discriminates against recording artists by denying us the rights and protections afforded to all other workers in California. I was always taught that Lincoln freed the slaves, I didnít realize that he excluded recording artists. The Legislature should join the union in freeing the recording artist from the bondage to which this legislation relegates us.
On behalf of more than 80,000 fellow AFTRA members, I am honored to have appeared before you.
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