Not ‘prince’ in the Machiavellian sense of the term – though there is an argument for that too – but as in the artist formerly known as. Back in 1992, Prince fought his label Warner Bros to get ownership of his rights and more creative control, struggling to get out of a deal he signed when he was 19 and had since decided was unfair and overly restrictive. He famously started appearing with the word ‘slave’ on his face. The bitter conflict resulted in Prince changing his name to ‘symbol’ and self-releasing via an artist subscription service long before subscriptions were even a thing. He then came back to a label deal on his own terms, later returning to Warner Bros and winning ownership of his masters, and finally signed with Tidal (read this for a succinct history of Prince’s label deals).
Now we have Kanye posting pages of his UMG deal on Twitter and saying it represents slavery. Why, nearly 30 years later, is history repeating itself?
Many artists start naïve and become educated
Many artist careers follow a similar path:
- Sign a deal as a young, commercially naïve artist
- Become successful
- Learn how the business works
- Realise that the deal you signed was heavily stacked in favour of the label
In recent years, this path has started to change, with most artists initially spending a few years as independent artists, learning how the business works, before getting a deal. When that deal comes, more of them go into it with eyes (relatively) wide open and negotiate terms that are more equitable for them. Companies like Cooking Vinyl, BMG and Kobalt’s AWAL helped change the market dynamic, pushing a new paradigm in artist deals and, in turn, driving the wider industry in the same direction. Label services, distribution deals and joint ownership deals are now commonplace even among major record labels.
A two-tier system
This dynamic has created a two-tier system. Many of the new generation of younger artists who own their masters have favourable royalty splits and high degrees of creative control. The older, established artists – including many of today’s superstars – are meanwhile still locked into the old way of doing things. These artists are starting to question why, as the artists with most sway, they seem to have less negotiating power than smaller, newer artists, and they don’t like it. Enter stage left, Kanye.
The reasons why artists did, and still do, sign traditional deals are simple:
- They are often what is first offered to them by many labels
- They reduce the artist’s exposure to risk by putting more of the risk on the label
- They give them the best chance of getting the full marketing heft of the label to make them into superstars
- They get a big advance
Kanye signed the deal he signed
Kanye’s Twitter posts indicate that he was given millions of dollars in advance payments. Now, however, with his ‘nemesis’ Taylor Swift enjoying the benefits of a new(ish) deal that gives her ownership of her rights, Kanye wants the same treatment. (Kanye’s advisor couldn’t avoid having a little dig suggesting that Kanye’s masters are worth more than Swifts’). I am not a music lawyer so I am not going to get into the details of whether Kanye’s deal is fair or legally watertight, but it is nonetheless the deal that he signed. And it was long after Prince’s campaign to get ownership of his masters. Kanye, knowingly or otherwise, signed the deal that he signed despite other deal types being available. It is a deal that may now look outmoded and out of pace with today’s marketplace, but he remains tied to its terms – for now at least.
From indentured labour to agency-client
Kanye and Prince’s use of the word ‘slavery’ is emotive and has extra connotations for black artists – and there is some logic to the argument. In a worst-case scenario, traditional label deals can resemble indentured labour, with the artist permanently in debt to the label, having no ownership of their work and unable to take their labour elsewhere. Modern day label deals are able to reframe the relationship to one of an agency-client model.
When Prince took on the music industry, he was a lone voice trying to bring a new way of doing things (though others such as the Beatles had previously fought the battle for their masters too). Prince’s actions helped pave the foundation for today’s better-balanced music business, and many superstars have taken advantage of his pioneering efforts, with Rihanna and Jay-Z just a couple of those that now own their masters. Nor is this the first time Kanye has been angling for ownership of his masters.
So, to answer the opening question, why is history repeating itself? Simply put, many young artists new to the profession will take the big cheque and the promise of being made into a superstar over getting a better deal. Many of the newer generation of music companies will note that it is no longer a binary choice if an artist signs a deal with them; nevertheless, the case of Kanye West shows us that for many artists it still is.
What has changed is that a new artist today has more opportunity to educate and empower themselves – to get a deal that will enable them to build an equitable, sustainable career. For that, they owe a debt of gratitude to Prince.