A major shakeup may be coming in the music business: Thanks to a provision in U.S. Copyright Law, musicians may be able to gain control of the master tapes of their albums – good news for artists, bad news for the record companies that have made millions from those records over the years. The law, which went into effect in 1978, will impact albums released 35 years after that date. So in 2013, major labels could potentially be deprived revenue from classic 1978 albums like Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town, Billy Joel's 52nd Street and Bob Dylan's Street-Legal. A few artists, including Tom Waits, have already filed paperwork for so-called "termination rights" for music from this period.
To learn why this issue is so important, we spoke with Don Henley, Eagles singer-drummer and co-founder of the Recording Artists' Coalition. His 1979 album with the Eagles, The Long Run, will be available for termination rights in 2014.
When did you first become aware of this issue?
We didn't know much of anything in the Seventies. So I think it was sometime in the Nineties, when Sheryl Crow and I formed the Recording Artists' Coalition and did some time in Washington trying to get a little more parity for artists. [Termination rights] got put on the back burner because it wasn't timely. But the clock has been ticking and now the time has come.
Why is it important to you to retrieve your master tapes?
We still sell a lot of catalog. So it would mean a great deal to us and our heirs. I have four kids. The future ain't what it used to be, as somebody once said. For artists like the Eagles and others who have sold millions upon millions of records and made millions in profits for the record companies, those artists should get their creations back. It's very simple. We created them, we paid for them – why aren't they ours? But the record companies claim ownership and authorship, which is one of the absurd things in a recording contract.
Have you filed termination rights paperwork for your work, starting with The Long Run?
Not yet. We're discussing it.
What are the options?
Artists have several things they can do. They can re-up with the label and use this as leverage to renegotiate a recording agreement. They can invoke termination rights and take back their master recordings and see what they can do themselves. If they get it back, they can shop it around and see if anybody else wants it – another label or an indie label or they might market it themselves on the Internet. Or artists can go back and re-record everything.
Would you consider that last option?
The Eagles have talked about doing that for years. But people have done that in the past and it doesn't quite have the magic. It's not going to sound the same. The originals are burned into people's psyches, and it's hard to replace that.
Which Eagles albums would you re-record if you could?
Well, the first five! [Laughs] But I'm not sure we'll ever get around to doing that. I don't know if there would be any point to it.
Some labels or lawyers are citing all the hurdles artists face in getting back their music: that bands will have to have a majority vote or that labels will invoke "work for hire" rights, as if the musicians were employees.
A lot of those are red herrings the labels have thrown out there to try to confuse the issue. Record companies insist sound recordings are "work for hire" and artists are employees of the companies. Which is a real interesting claim because we don't enjoy any of the benefits or obligations a normal employee would be granted. They don't provide health insurance for us. They don't pay Social Security for us. They don't withhold taxes from our royalty checks. They don't provide us a place of employment. It's a real stretch for the record companies to claim we're employees. We're independent contractors.
Since you've become such a spokesman on this issue, have any of your peers approached you about more information?
Not really. I talked about it with the guys in the group but I haven't had any discussions with other artists. That's one reason artists have been getting the shaft for 50 years: We're incredibly disorganized. We're a very stubborn, independent lot and we don't band together. There's some sort of guilt – we don't want to be seen as greedy or whatever. But labels are reaping what they've sown. They've got both artists and consumers mad at them now.
It sounds as if the labels are preparing to fight artists on this, especially since catalog sales still bring in so much money for them.
Knowing record companies as I do and having dealt with them for over 40 years, I know nothing's easy with them. They're not going to just roll over. My hope is that artists understand what's at stake and what their rights are. I would hope that each and every artist who's made recordings during this period would have a basic knowledge of what's going on here.
Are you cutting any new music these days?
I've been working on a country album for a couple of years now, in between parenting and Eagles projects. It's coming along really well. It's both originals and covers, and I'm producing it with my buddy Stan Lynch. It's probably not going to come out until next spring. I'm working at my own glacial pace.