As the music industry evolves, record labels continue to use exploitative tactics that place their artists in compromising positions.
The music industry is arguably one of the most exploitative industries around. Artists are often faced with a difficult decision when evaluating whether they should sign to a label, as that can determine how their career will pan out and whether they could reach their full potential.
Labels offer artists the opportunity to sign record contracts that require artists to produce a certain number of albums and promote them over a specific period of time.
The majority of mainstream and up-and-coming artists whose projects often receive acclaim have signed to a label prior to the release of their work. Whether the label is independent and running on a smaller scale, or major and owned by huge corporations, artists are capable of receiving the financial backing which will allow them to tour, and get in contact with managers, booking agents and publicists who will promote their projects to media outlets. Without having established a team of professionals to guide them, most new artists have little-to-no knowledge of the means to navigate it.
Having access to these necessary resources in exchange for signing a recording contract seems like a fair deal. Nevertheless, that does not stop musicians from being exploited, which is why they must constantly be in the loop when it comes to the hidden clauses in their contracts.
Streaming has become the most popular way of consuming music over the past decade, leaving record sales to plummet over time. A recent analysis made by Music Business Worldwide demonstrated that major labels such as Universal Music Group, Sony Music and Warner accumulated an average of $22.9 million USD every 24 hours in 2019. This is absurd given that artists will not even make a fraction of that revenue, as services such as Spotify pay artists approximately $0.003 USD per stream.
Over the past couple of decades, there have been countless notable cases of artist vs. label feuds that have exposed unjust practices. Some of the noteworthy feuds include the story of Prince’s longlasting fallout with Warner in the 90s due to ownership issues, or Dr. Dre’s lawsuit against Death Row Records, who failed to compensate him with any of the proceeds made from the reissue of his acclaimed debut, The Chronic. Although these cases deal with prominent labels, independent labels are equally complicit in taking advantage of their artists.
In 2015, Catalonian punk quartet Mourn issued a statement explaining how their Spanish label, Sones, who also served as their management team, had attempted to stop the release of their sophomore LP while withholding all of their funds. In fact, the band’s lead singer, Jazz Rodriguez, mentioned being neglected by their team and how that took a huge toll on their mental health in an interview with i-D in 2018.
A story that made headlines earlier this month was when rapper Megan Thee Stallion disclosed that her label, 1501 Certified Entertainment, was not willing to renegotiate her contract and therefore attempted to stop the release of her follow-up EP Suga. On a recent Instagram live stream, she mentioned not knowing the contents of her contract at the time, since she was not supplied with a real management team and did not have awyers to guide her. Megan also stated that she had a good relationship with her label and even considered them to be like family but it was greed that played a major part in their decisions. According to a court document provided to Rolling Stone, 1501 Certified Entertainment received 30 percent of Megan’s sources of income whether it was from touring, selling merchandise, sponsorships, endorsements or hosting.Jordan Bromley, a specialist in entertainment transactions, considers this number to be “a massive overreach.”
Evidently, the safest way to pursue a career in music is by doing so independently. Having the ability to possess full control of both the content behind the record as well as release dates seems to be a luxury that has served many artists well.
Quebec’s indie-pop band Men I Trust has managed to release three well-received records and have been playing headlining shows internationally over the past couple of years without being backed by a label. Australian-based psychedelic rock group, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, released the majority of their extensive discography via Flightless Records, which is entirely owned by the band’s drummer Eric Moore. Also, established artists such as MGMT have recently pushed towards releasing their latest numbers independently, despite still being signed to Columbia Records.
Perhaps the push towards releasing music independently and more frequently will be the new trend throughout the decade.
Graphic by Sasha Axenova.