How moving to a patronage model can help you escape music industry exploitation


Prince, Kanye West, and the Fight Against the Music Industry

The music industry is badly in need of change.

Every musician believes this — even the ones who have found the most success and favor. Artists struggle to control their art, the percentages that record labels take in exchange for the work they do is far too high, and at the end of the day, the musicians aren’t the ones in control.

One of the artists most emblematic of this reality is also one of my favorites: Prince, who in the 1990s changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. To this day many people are under the impression that he did this just because he was weird, but that’s not the case at all. He did it because he had grown so frustrated with the creative limitations and predatory tactics of his label, Warner Bros, that he rejected his name entirely in an attempt to break his contract.

Let me tell you more.

Prince found fame early, independently creating his first album and signing a deal with Warner Bros at the age of 19. Twenty years later, he re-signed with the same label for a six-album contract worth $100 million dollars. Though that sounds like a lot, this was where the issues began. You see, a majority of that money was actually a series of advances which required each of his albums to sell 5 million copies.

Prince, being a prolific artist that moved from project to project with quickness, seemed to have no interest in turning every album into a # 1 hit. Though Purple Rain sold 14 million copies, other releases of his sold way under the 5-million mark.

Warner Bros knew this, and in actuality the terms of the contract were a tactic to get Prince to slow down and release music at a more gradual pace in order to not over-saturate the market. They wanted him to spend more time promoting each album with tours, singles, and music videos. Prince, used to releasing music yearly and the owner of a literal vault full of music, wanted to move faster.

So, what does this have to do with a symbol? Well, changing his name wasn’t some random thing he did. Instead, it was an attempt to extract himself from his deal with Warner Bros who had actually trademarked the term ‘Prince’. Already going so far as to write ‘Slave’ on his face while performing, Prince took it even further by giving up his birth name completely in an attempt to extract himself from his contract.

Sadly, it didn’t work. Prince was stuck releasing music through Warner Bros, and many of the albums he submitted to the label wouldn’t see the light of day for years. In a rare moment of public vulnerability, Prince wrote about it directly, saying that the process was painful and that “record labels had no right to enslave the creators.” Prince would reclaim his name upon the expiration of his contract, but he continued to be a vocal critic of the music industry for the rest of his life. Prince took plenty of opportunities to tell the world about the brokenness of the artist-label relationship, even on the music industry’s own stages. During his acceptance speech for an ‘Artist of the Decade’ award he use his time to encourage artists to understand that they were “playing someone else’s game” and subtly encouraged the entire room to get out of their contracts.

25 years later, the music industry is more in need of disruption than ever and artists are still deserving (to use a word Prince would enjoy) emancipation — and now the major artist who’s publicly moving the conversation forward is Kanye West.

Much like Prince’s battle, the fight that Kanye has recently taken to live-tweeting revolves around the desire to see artists own their own masters. Thirty years later, the story hasn’t changed much since the 1990s. When an artist signs a deal with a record label, they often unwittingly sign away their rights to the creative works they’ve made. In Prince’s words, “if you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”

Kanye wants to see the artist-label relationship changestarting at the contract level. Almost every record contract is based around the idea of royalties and advances. What most artists don’t understand is that there are numerous hidden costs like “distribution fees” which make it so that you often can’t fully recount and you definitely can’t make a stable income.

Kanye has a new ideal model in mind, with a set of rules that looks something like this:

Artists must own the copyright of their recordings and songs in full, and lease them to record labels for a limited time period, typically 1 year.

Record labels should be seen as service providers that receive a share of the income that represents their role, with the default split being 80/20 in the artist’s favor.

Artists must be able to manage their catalog on their own if they so choose, and record labels must create and provide artists with an online portal that clearly shows the artists their income in forms such as a royalty breakdown.

Finally, contracts should be written in plain english and based on equity, not advances.

That last one is really important because complicated contracts are how labels take advantage of their talent. You will notice that throughout this book, I don’t use industry jargon at any point. The reason that this jargon exists is to make the record label look important and knowledgeable and keep the artist in the dark. Why does the industry use a term like “DSP” (digital streaming platform) instead of saying “streaming platform like Spotify”? It’s because this is yet another tactic to create a barrier between the artist and the industry.

Kanye believes that the only way to see change happen is for artists to unite, demand better terms, and work exclusively with players who uphold these new standards. I truly hope that Kanye West helps drive change, and the story will certainly make an impact on the way that record labels and artists interact. Good things are already coming out of it: He announced that he would be giving back his share of masters to artists that signed with his GOOD MUSIC label, and that’s great!

Unfortunately, in all likelihood, this change will only truly impact the artists with the biggest names. The benefits that Kanye West are pushing for will not trickle down to smaller artists for years, if ever, and even if contracts are changed in the artist’s favor, in this scenario record labels in still the ones in the position of power.

That being said, I have great news. The truth is that artists no longer need labels or publishers at all. The future of music is in artists independently controlling their own art, using a savvy team of experts to make things happen, and creating a direct relationship with their audience.

Let’s explore why record labels are a thing of the past and why patronage is the future of the music industry.

PART TWO // The History of Record Labels >>>