On PWR BTTM, controversy, and the incredible power rights holders wield in 2017
It took less than a week for the career of PWR BTTM, a two-piece punk band from New York, to unravel. After months of digital hype and an outpouring of support from some of the industry’s biggest influencers, accusations of sexual abuse and predatory behavior brought against PWR BTTM member Ben Hopkins spread like wildfire just two days before the group’s Polyvinyl Records debut was due to be released. As word continued to spread, people and brand associated with the act began to distance themselves, including Polyvinyl Records and any label that had worked with the group prior to the alleged incidents. By Friday, the damage was done. Polyvinyl pulled all promotion for the record, as well as any options to purchase the record online, and all upcoming tour dates were cancelled. The hype train was dead, and so was the career of PWR BTTM.
The fallout from the accusations made against Hopkins happened much faster than has typically been the case in similar instance where allegations were brought against a member of the alternative music community. There reasons for this have already been discussed at length, but the fallout itself is pretty typical. First fans revolt, then any associated acts (tour support) and professionals (management, booking, etc.). From there, labels typically issue a statement and announce their plans to sever ties with the talent. Venues may or may not follow suit as well, depending on the band’s level of success and the aforementioned outcry from fans.
The one new twist in the fallout from such allegations being made did not come to pass until the beginning of this week, several days after the allegations were first made. Polyvinyl, having already pulled all physical copies of PWR BTTM’s debut album as quickly as they could, also scrubbed any digital downloads and streams of the record from the internet. Unless you were someone who received a preorder of the album prior to the events of last week, which likely includes anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand people, you have virtually no way to experience PWR BTTM’s album. More importantly, Polyvinyl has no way to recoup any investment they made in PWR BTTM.
The reason Polyvinyl is able to do this, and as a result make PWR BTTM’s catalog virtually unavailable, is because they own the rights to the music. Most labels own all or at least some of the rights to the music the artists on their roster creates, which gives them final authority on how or if that music is available to the public.
And this is the game-changer. Historically speaking, while many labels would pull an artist’s releases from their store and/or cut ties with talent accused of wrongdoing, most label chose to keep the accused musician’s catalog available on streaming services. This means those labels were quietly making money from any streaming royalties connected to that artist’s music while publicly stating they were distancing themselves from that artist. These actions contradict themselves by placing importance on money and recouping costs rather than doing the right thing by consumers and victims. How can you claim to not be associated with a sexual predator if you are cashing checks that resulted from their art? Everyone knows controversy tends to lead to a bump, so if anything these labels are making more money (at least in the short term) because of these incidents.
By expressing their power as rights holders over the music PWR BTTM made Polyvinyl has taken a stand against abusers and sent a strong message to all other artists worldwide. In a time where the vast majority of musicians are creating everything in the digital space it’s important to understand how handing over control also empowers someone else to delete, erase, or pull your work at their discretion. The alleged actions of Hopkins were unquestionably the lynchpin to PWR BTTM’s undoing, but by erasing their work from the internet Polyvinyl has made what would typically be a short, yet forced hiatus into something that feels much more permanent. Will more labels follow suit? I hope so.