The record label-artist rivalry is a tale as old as time. Disputes between labels and their artists have existed ever since music production became a field of profession. Johnny Cash and Columbia Records duked it out over the promotion of his 20th album, “Bitter Tears” (1964), because of its unconventionally sociopolitical themes. Prince held a lasting standoff between Warner Bros. over the freedom of his artistic choices while under contract. Even with such big-name artists, conflicts with labels commonly arise from issues with contracts. More recently, profit distribution between artists and their labels have become a common source of dispute, especially within the hip-hop genre. Artists under contract to a music label are required to generate a certain amount of revenue for the company, which can be especially daunting for new and unestablished artists. With platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, the luxuries of present day have unveiled a new horizon of possibilities for aspiring artists to achieve success. Unfortunately, these opportunities entail a new range of financial setbacks for artists. It’s a double-edged sword — particularly for young and up-and-coming artists — that can potentially hold them back from reaching their full potential, regardless of talent.
The terms of music production have widely bent under our transition into the digital era. I don’t think I’ve purchased a physical CD in the last decade, and I can’t name anyone I personally know who has either. Better yet, I haven’t even digitally purchased music in over half that amount of time. We have already evolved from the “iTunes era” of digitally purchasing individual songs and albums as storage-consuming files and have arguably already settled into a new era built upon streaming. The process of listening to your favorite song has become as simple as typing its name on a third-party music platform and pressing search, without that guilt-inducing process of telling yourself that it will be the last time you buy a new hit single for $1.29 on iTunes with your mom’s credit card. The combination of profit cuts that these streaming platforms and record labels take begs the question: How much are the actual artists making?
The terms of contracts between record labels and artists are largely confidential, and rightfully so. However, The Root, an Afrocentric progressive online magazine, found that on average, about 63 percent of profits go to the label while around 24 percent goes to distributing platforms. This leaves the actual artists with only 13 percent, which is split further if there are multiple artists as a collective. Of these streaming platforms’ revenues, only 7 percent goes toward the artists and 10 percent goes to their songwriters, while labels rake in roughly 45 percent of the profit, over double the profit that these streaming platforms make off of their own revenue. Furthermore, artists under contract are indebted a certain amount of revenue to their label and are often stuck working under these labels without a choice for years at a time. Despite selling over 10 million copies of their smash hit album “CrazySexyCool,” (1994) each member of TLC only earned about $35,000 from it while left with a $3.5 million debt to their contract before filing for bankruptcy. It took Dr. Dre nearly 20 years to successfully sue Death Row Records, a label he had founded, after being refused payment since 1996 for his own hit album, “The Chronic” (1992). He was only able to do this after coming out of bankruptcy. While not every label is corrupt, others in similar positions may not necessarily be as fortunate as Dr. Dre.
I want to clear the air by saying that music labels are a fundamentally necessary component in music production. A lot of my top artists would likely not exist had they never been discovered by their labels. While artists and labels share a symbiotic relationship that is essential in each other’s goal to produce music, the reality is that artists are still underpaid. There is an infinite number of aspiring young artists, but there is a finite number of big-name labels. By power of supply and demand, labels inherently hold higher ground over most artists, and indisputably over undiscovered ones. Obviously, music labels rightfully need a sturdy share of an artists’ revenue to keep producing the music that we take for granted, but when considering the importance of an artist’s role in music, earning as low as around 10 percent of profits is beyond disproportionate, regardless of other means of revenue such as concerts and merchandise. I can only imagine how many potentially revolutionary artists, drowning in contract debt or failing to work independently from labels, might be left undiscovered due to a structurally unchanging imbalance in the music industry.
Sean Morton is a junior majoring in English.