The new pollution
The Motels take on the record industry’s shady royalty policy in the digital age
By David Cotner 07/26/2012
The Motels: A band made of moody sonics and solid cinematic noir, formed in Berkeley in 1971, relocated to Los Angeles in 1975, led by singer-songwriter Martha Davis. As with many overnight successes, theirs took slightly more than a decade to come true. All Four One, the 1982 album that featured the devastating “Only the Lonely,” was certified gold, having sold more than 500,000 copies. This is, of course, after the original incarnation of the band fractured (the original bassist, Lisa Brenneis, currently grows Pixie tangerines in Ojai), with its label wielding an increasing amount of creative input. And, ultimately, no small amount of creative accounting. On March 30, Davis filed a class-action suit against EMI Group Ltd. for breach of contract, alleging underpaid royalties from digital sales of The Motels’ music. The suit alleges that EMI mischaracterized revenue from digital downloads and streaming access to her back catalogue, using the old rulebook by which EMI-owned Capitol (the band’s original label) paid its artists. This is to say that it has withheld royalties for, among other reasons, purposes of returning unsold records, something that doesn’t apply to digital music or music consumed as ringtones, for instance. The result is an improper accounting of royalties that should have been paid out for the better part of a decade. It’s been a quick and dirty education in modern music for Martha Davis.
VCReporter: How did “Only the Lonely” finally come to be?
Martha Davis: It just appeared. When a song comes and smacks you in the head … I sat down with my guitar, and “Only the Lonely” was sitting there — lyrics, melody, everything. It just sort of spewed out. Obviously, it had a lot to do with where I was at the time, which was kind of a netherworld of experiencing our first success in the music business. We’d actually gotten signed, which was a miracle, and we were actually touring, which was a miracle. I think it was my explanation of that, being really not very happy and being pretty lonely, and still being in the midst of this chaotic fabulousness. It sort of is like that in life sometimes. You’ll have everything you want . . . except everything you want.
Where are you in your digital rights battle currently?
It’s kind of very difficult right now for anyone that’s an artist. Because of the fabulous world of digital — don’t get me wrong, there are great upsides to this; the record industry didn’t figure that out, though — as writers and artists, you watch a lot of your income disappear because whereas you used to sell an album, now you sell a song. So already your royalties are getting cut pretty bad, but then you get the record companies coming along and structuring your payment the same as it was if it were an actual LP. So what they’ve done is, they’ve modeled it after the old way. They charge you for things like storage, all the things that pertain to an actual item that is now digital. It makes no sense. It’s hard out here, and it’s hard for everybody. I’m not the only one going through hard times. I’ve had a wonderful life and I love what I do, but when they’re blatantly misrepresenting royalties and the contract is structured in such a way, they’re basically ripping us off.
What have you learned as an artist, going into this conflict?
If anything, I’ve learned that maybe it’s good sometimes to stand up for myself. Like I said, I do not like conflict and I don’t like lawsuits. But I got to this point where I said, “It’s just not fair.” You get to a point where you have to stand up for fairness. I think I learned that about myself, that there are times when you’ve just got to stand up.
The Motels will perform at the Canyon Club on Friday, July 27, at 9 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit www.thecanyonclub.net.