One of the things I'm most bothered by in every discussion about the music industry is the way some people are too quick to justify violating copyright law because the industry is ripping off the musicians. I don't dispute many musicians are probably under-compensated for their efforts while laboring under contract with a major record label, but what they receive as compensation for their efforts has nothing to do with violating the law. My problem with this theory is two parts.
First, just because the industry may or may not be doing something wrong doesn't make it okay to something else currently held to be wrong in the eyes of several legal systems around the globe. Vote with your wallet and spend the money you would use for CDs on live music; bands are more fairly compensated at live shows. Only purchase music from musicians who aren't under contract with a major label. Does anyone really *need* the music produced by a major label artist? If there's a problem with the system, the system probably needs to be changed via some legal means.
My other problem with this argument is the signatures on the contract. The guys in the band who are supposedly slaving for the suits did put their signatures on the contract, right? Doesn't a signed contract mean they agreed to the terms, no matter how one-sided those terms may appear down the road? If I take a job for $25000 per year and my skills have a market value of $50000 per year, am I getting ripped off because I agreed to perform a job for less than my market value? It could be argued I made a bad decision, but no one is going to agree my employer is ripping me off. I didn't have to take the job.
How is this different in the music industry? Or the publishing industry? Or any industry taking a risk on creative talents? Those poor souls who signed the band side of the contract didn't know any better? They were young and foolish? These are excuses, nothing more. If I sign a business contract and don't review it carefully, when I later discover the terms aren't to my liking can I claim ignorance?
Bands have options. Self-producing an album, going on tour, and holding out for better terms may not be as glamorous, but the payoff may be bigger long term. Plenty of musicians go this route and are far more likely to have something in their pocket at the end of the day. Many musicians earn a respectable wage without ever signing their name to a contract with any label.
Quite frankly, the sooner bands realize the record label as we know it is obsolete, the better their bargaining position will become. They may not be on terrestrial radio, but satellite and Internet radio are slowly capturing more listeners and aren't programmed by two or three key individuals. There are still advantages to major label affiliation. Musicians have better access to product positioning in stores, PR opportunities, and key appearances in high profile events like award shows by being on a major label. Major label bands get songs added to console game and movie soundtracks. The little guy doesn't have a negotiator for these kinds of opportunities. Not yet anyway.
Until bands figure out they are running a business and start handling negotiations in a business-like manner, they will continue to get "ripped off." Who is really to blame for the poor choices made by musicians?