Signing a record deal, I’m told, feels like landing the Gaga role in A Star Is Born: plucked from obscurity by glamorous drunkards and catapulted into a world of superstardom and public incontinence. For some, that’s exactly how it plays out, but many end up feeling as though they’ve signed up for a bit-part in 101 Dalmations instead – flayed alive to support the self-centred honchos of some malicious sonic skin trade.
It’s a manipulative mentality that can even affect those at the very top of the game. Last year, Taylor Swift took to Twitter to expose the behind-the-scenes dealings that were preventing her from playing her old material at the AMA Awards.
Big Machine, the label she’d signed to aged 15, had been bought by Ithaca Holdings in a $300 million deal which swung on including the lucrative masters of Swift’s early albums. Swift suggested that she would soon start re-recording those albums so that fans could buy them on her terms, a move that would have a serious impact on Braun’s investment.
The star took the spat public. “Scott Borchetta told my team that they’ll allow me to use my music only if I do these things,” she posted. “If I agree not to re-record copycat versions of my songs next year…and also told me that I need to stop talking about him and Scooter Braun…The message being sent to me is very clear. Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you’ll be punished.”
Last week she updated fans on the latest news: her masters had been sold on by Braun to a private equity firm called Shamrock Holdings. It was basically the comprehensible equivalent of Prince scrawling ‘SLAVE’ on his cheek during his early ‘90s wrangles with Warner Brothers over pretty much the exact same issue.
And this time Taylor isn’t fighting for her musical rights alone. Her arch-nemesis Kanye West recently declared the music industry one of the “modern day slave ships” and claimed he wouldn’t release any more music until released from publishing contracts with Universal and Sony. “I am the new Moses,” he tweeted, presumably having unearthed the Old Testament’s long-lost Book Of Small Print in which Moses parted the Red Tape.
Such high-profile battles are just the tip of the iceberg. Many acts significantly further from the Time 100 list suffer from such backroom banditry all the time. We often hear about dodgy managers or accountants surreptitiously syphoning band cash into ‘Amsterdam funds’ before absconding with the merch girl for the off-grid bender of a lifetime. Now, as artists’ incomes are squeezed by streaming, we’re hearing more from acts frustrated at their music slipping out of their control.
Take The Cribs, fresh from a two-year legal fight against ownership of their albums being sold to “some fucking big-shot in Beverly Hills” without their knowledge, a battle that stalled their output and almost split the band. “Our first album cost us £900 to record and we funded it by working in a factory for weeks,” Ryan Jarman told NME. “I’ll be damned if some huge mega-rich corporation is going to take that away from me or claim ownership of it… Our catalogue and all our songs, that’s everything I’ve got to show for my life. That’s my entire legacy.”
Band trapped on exploitative contract: it’s a story as old as The Beatles versus their early publisher Dick James, but an increasingly common one. For a decade or more the music industry has been justifying increasingly exploitative deals – rights grabs, 360-degree contracts and so forth – on the basis that the collapse of physical sales in the internet age has decimated their profit margins. Yet recent figures show that streaming revenue has now virtually made up for the millennial sales slump. Contrary to popular opinion, the music industry is experiencing something of a streaming, sync and performance rights boom.
Music as a whole is making almost as much money today as it did 20 years ago, yet those dark-days deals remain unsweetened for these sunlit uplands. As much as we criticise Spotify, YouTube and other streaming platforms for expecting musicians’ banks to accept royalty transfers of dust motes, the problem is exacerbated by labels – now doing quite nicely out of it all, thanks very much – failing to pass their latest windfalls on to the artists. It’s a bit like Jeff Bezos tapping his empty glass when it’s definitely his round.
Many labels, for example, still split streaming revenue with artists in the same way that they would for CDs and vinyl albums, with the majority of the income going to the label in order to cover heavy production and distribution costs that simply don’t exist in the digital world. Now, you might hope that labels would see the benefits in trust and loyalty of sharing the wealth, of encouraging rather than exploiting talent and supporting the foundations of their industry. But, as a conveyor belt system built on short-term, disposable talent and with the history and reputation for gregarious altruism of a Wetherspoons CEO, the music industry at large will willingly change its practices to benefit the artists the day Donald Trump is gracious in defeat.
No, it’s going to take a brave and concerted effort on the part of all musicians to shift the scales back in their favour. Be it high-profile acts like Swift and West risking legal issues and scuppering multi-million-dollar deals to ensure they’re seen to get what they deserve, or sought-after new acts putting their futures on the line by insisting on fairer deals. It might feel like David asking Goliath for a bigger catapult, but the alternative might well be like being crushed beneath a gigantic, shit-covered sandal for the rest of your career.
They won’t be alone. 2020 has drastically highlighted and exacerbated royalty and rights issues by decimating musicians’ live income, so such complaints will come thicker and faster over the coming years. In March, campaigns including Keep Music Alive and #BrokenRecord sprung up to focus on artists’ struggle against an impossible tide of misfortunes – including a muso-starving Government with all the artistic sensibility of Gal Gadot’s WhatsApp – pushing for platforms and labels to increase streaming royalties to artists and supporting those acts willing to fight back.
Like Tay-Tay wrote: “Hopefully, young artists or kids with musical dreams will read this and learn about how to better protect themselves in a negotiation – you deserve to own the art you make.” The future of music depends on acts educating themselves, steeling their nerves and going in demanding the deals they deserve. You’re no Dalmation pups; you are lions…