He's Lost Control Again


Album sales are dying, everyone is streaming, and indie radio DJs are playing MP3 mixtapes they downloaded from blogs. Where do you go from here if you are an artist trying to make music and release it into the world (especially if you want to make a few bucks?) I wrote about this TEN YEARS AGO and most of that is still relevant. Licencing is one option, but I'm here to tell you that selling or giving away your music isn't always the best idea.

In 2002, I was excited to participate in the 48 Hour Film Project but I didn't have a team with which to make a film. Instead, I was approached by a guy who did have a team and needed some music for his piece. After a quick discussion, I gave him a copy of Larvae's first single NEAR MISS and he wound up using it in the opening sequence of his short film. There was just one problem: that short was titled WHITE BITCH DOWN.

I'm anything but prudish, but still, this wasn't something I could call up my mom about! The play on BLACK HAWK DOWN probably seemed more clever in 2002 than it would today, but the title just bothered me. And there was nothing I could do about.

A few years later when I was producing work for Ad Noiseam, one of the strategies we had for getting the Larvae name out in the world was contributing b-sides and remixes and other non-album tracks to other labels for compilations. This was a lot of fun because it meant that Chris and I could work on stuff that was a little left-of-center relative to the tracks on the albums.

We donated our very earliest collaboration called "Staesis" to a label and we were thrilled that it was going to get mastered and released. But then I saw the title and the cover art.

You can click through this link to see the cover art which is actually somehow MUCH more controversial than the CD alone. And again, it wasn't the content alone that I had a problem with. If bondage is your thing and you practice it safely and consensually, then go for it! But I wasn't expecting to help to promote something that was so immediately off-putting to so many people. Outside of the context of a relationship or a specific kink scene, the cover art was simply objectifying in the worst way. But it was too late. There was our track, right there in the liner notes.

Of course both of these examples were deals made in good faith where exposure was the only reward. There's a lot of hand wringing in the online creative community about the perils of giving away creative work for free. And I get it--if this is your job then you need to be compensated. But I'd argue that whether you are being paid or not, the first thing you should be thinking about is how the work will be used. Do you want your song used to sell Pumpkin Lattes? Racks for servers? Whiskey? Do you want your song to be used as the anthem for a bunch neo-nazis in a movie? Do you want your song included on an album called, simply, "Fuck?"

In the last few years, a Larvae song was picked up and used (without permission) by a theater company in their production of a show called LEO. In this case, it turned out that I liked what they did with the song and the show looked neat. If they had asked, I would have said "sure, please use the song!" But they didn't ask. And when I contacted them, they never wrote back.

A still from LEO. It looks cool, right?

A still from LEO. It looks cool, right?

Thanks to an eagle-eyed employee at the Sydney Opera House where the show was performed, I was alerted the the use of my song and eventually even paid for some of the performances since I had registered the song with BMI. But what if I hadn't? How many shows were performed before that manager in Sydney noticed my name? What if the show hadn't been cool, but had instead used my song to underscore some evil character or some vile political message? How would I ever know and why would the burden be on ME to get them to stop using it?

I've never made a living from music, so the money side of it has never been my primary concern. But even if you are trying to pay your rent with your royalties, agreeing to how your work is going to be used is more important than how much you are getting paid for it.