Some of the best-known names in music will be performing in California this week, not in a stadium or concert hall, but in the state senate and the courts. They will be giving evidence in hearings which they hope will change the relationship between musicians and the record industry and end what they claim is an unfair and exploitative system.
Today more than 100 musicians, including Don Henley (formerly of The Eagles), Courtney Love and Patti Austin, are due to lobby the California state senate in Sacramento which is holding hearings on the issue of recording contracts. Henley and Love will give evidence, as will senior record company executives.
At stake is a section of the California labour code which ties musicians -- many of whom sign their contracts in the state -- to longer contracts than anyone else in the entertainment business and allows record companies to sue if musicians do not produce the number of albums for which they are contracted.
The musicians, part of an organization called the Recording Artists Coalition which was formed earlier this year, have complained that the contracts to which they are tied, often signed when performers are young and inexperienced, are punitive and unfair.
The labour code that is being debated has a long showbusiness pedigree: it was Olivia de Havilland, the Oscar-winning actress, who sued Warners more than 60 years ago and won a landmark decision that established a seven-year limit on entertainment industry contracts.
That eventually led to the end of the Hollywood studio system. But in 1987 record companies secured an amendment to the law to exclude musicians. This means that some musicians are signed to contracts longer than seven years from which they have difficulty extricating themselves.
The record companies argued successfully that they were a special case because they invested heavily in new artists and the long contracts allowed them to recoup that investment.
Senator Kevin Murray, chairman of the state senate committee on the entertainment industry, said that this was the first time that so many musicians had come together in a bid to change the law.
"Stars have rarely used their star power like this," said Murray. "The current statute is ambiguous and doesn't help anybody."
Murray said that new legislation could well be drafted following the hearings. The record companies will oppose the changes that the musicians seek.
Tomorrow, Courtney Love will sue the world's largest record label, Universal Music Group, for US$30 million at the Los Angeles superior court.
This dispute arose because Love originally signed with a small record company, Geffen Records, which was later taken over by conglomerates so that Love was assigned to Interscope, the very label she had declined to sign with in 1992.
Love has argued that she would never have signed with such a large organization and thus the initial contract she made with Geffen Records does not apply. She is being sued in turn by UMG for her alleged failure to complete five owed albums.
Love's high profile lawyer, Barry Cappello, said Monday that victory for his client would "radically change" the power that record companies had to treat artists like "personal property chattels."
He added: "Most musicians don't have the ability to take this kind of action" because the legal costs were "obnoxiously expensive."
This case is likely to go to full trial in the spring and, if Love is successful, would free musicians from relationships that have resulted from the increasing number of entertainment business takeovers.
The Recording Industry Association of America has argued that artists who take multimillion dollar advances cannot later walk away from their obligations. It argues that musicians often sign the deals and then spend their time seeking to increase their earnings through lucrative film and television work when they should be fulfilling their contractual obligations by completing their albums.
Last week, the popular country act, the Dixie Chicks, announced that they were suing Sony to terminate their contract. Luther Vandross and Oscar de la Hoya, the singing boxer, are involved in similar lawsuits.