Are Record Labels Modern Day Slave Drivers?

In 2016 we’ve seen David Bowie, George Martin, Frank Sinatra Jr. and, most recently, Prince depart from this world.

Prince left behind a legacy of not only an outstanding catalogue, but also the attitude to be proud of who you are and to not take anybody’s shit. The star lived out his career always suspicious of record labels and the Internet, desiring complete control of his image and created works. He made headlines for inscribing the word “slave” on his cheek during a contract battle with Warner Brothers Records in the 1990s. Despite taking the steps to mend the relationship with the label for the 30th Anniversary Deluxe Edition of Purple Rain in 2014, Prince offered these words of wisdom the following year:

“Record contracts are just like — I’m gonna say the word – slavery,” Prince said. “I would tell any young artist… don’t sign.”

Prince is not the only musician to vocalize his abhorrence towards record labels. Signed artists, unsigned artists, chart-toppers and bottom-feeders all have their own reason for despising the recording industry. Some hate how they are cheated out of their own money and want more control over their music. Other more established acts would prefer to take matters into their own hands and release their recordings independently, without a label. Prince himself did this with his 2015 album HitNRun, offered exclusively on Jay-Z’s Tidal. There are the yet-to-be-discovered bands who are fueled by countless label rejections to go DIY, and the artists who are being destroyed by the labels who do not take the artist’s interests to heart.

Here we turn to Kesha, the phenom who just can’t seem to break free from Sony. This year she’s been in the news for losing her legal bid to be emancipated from her contract with Sony, with whom she does not which to continue working with due to rape allegations against their favorite producer, Dr. Luke. This past week rapper The Game let off some steam about the Kesha-Sony battle to TMZ. The Game came to Kesha’s defense by saying “Let her do her thing. I don’t understand music and the slave mentality. If the artist is not happy, you should let the artist do their thing.”

When asked about her breaching the contract, he replied with “Fuck that contract. You know what a contract is? A piece of paper that I signed when I was dumb and illiterate to the music business. Then you figure it out, you get smart, you get aware, you realize you signed some bullshit.”

There’s the punchline: The Game threw out the word “slave”, coined by Prince in reference to the treatment of artists by labels. In 1996, Prince provided Rolling Stone with his reasoning behind his use of such a vivid metaphor.

“People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face,” he said. “But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I? When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave.”

At the time, Prince performed under the title “The Artist Formerly Known By Prince” because Warner Brothers had control over his masters. “I don’t own Prince’s music,” Prince continued. “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.”

Prince made this reference as a black musician being strangled by a big recording label who was large and in-charge. The singer went on to give Warner Brothers what they wanted-a handful of records. But he created them to spite the label, providing prosaic work that would not fatten their pockets.

The use of “slave” in the recording industry is often dropped in front of the word “contract.” Musicians under slave contracts simply have a bad record deal, giving themselves the short end of the stick. It was a standard practice within the business for African-Americans to be short-changed, often being forced to give a large portion of their royalties to management and the label. This was so for TLC, Salt-N-Pepa, Little Richard, and a myriad of others. Black musicians are not the only ones subject to slave contracts, though. American Idol has been slammed throughout its duration for exercising total control over the careers of the contestants that sign a contract with their company, 19 Entertainment. Not only does the firm oversee the recording process for the contest’s winner, it also dictates merchandising, touring, sponsorship, and movie deals. The winning act no longer becomes a person but a brand, a face for American Idol, and the breadwinner for Simon Fuller, the franchise’s creator.

The American Idol deal is what we industry people call the 360-deal, or the Multiple Rights Deal. This creates a business relationship between the artist and label, where the label provides financial support for all artist-related endeavors and the label receives a large cut of all relevant revenue streams. The 360-deal is how the recording industry can still make money in the days where the sale of music is tanking, vs a traditional deal that only involves money from the actual album sales. In effort to save themselves, both major and indie record labels have put forth such deals to entice artists with stars in their eyes who just want to begin their musical journey.

The exploitation of musicians in the recording biz is largely due to their lack of education and industry know-how as well as the glittery promise of fame by a slimy, greedy music executive. Young artists and newbies have empty pockets and an eagerness to escape their run-of-the-mill life for glitz and glamour, forgetting their value as a human being and becoming vulnerable to manipulative situations. While not every musician is able to attend a college with a strong music industry program (like mine) that will give them training wheels before they ever get on and fall off the bike, the Internet is a great resource for learning how it all works. In addition to online education, young acts should hire an entertainment lawyer, for one-time or ongoing use, who will ensure that you are not signing away your wife, kids, and limbs for this opportunity.

A great resource for those wanting to learn more about the ins-and-outs of recording deals is MusicThinkTank.com, a blog service by Hypebot.com to educate those wishing to enter the music industry. Check out this to learn more about how 360-deals work, and here to uncover the differences between major labels, indie labels, and DIY projects!

Prince stood up for artist’s rights over the course of his lifetime. #RIP Prince, you will be missed.

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