Dartmouth Soundoff: Contractual Conflicts
Record labels and their contracts have a long history of making artists’ lives more complicated. Signing with a label often means a great deal of artistic sacrifice; labels both hold rights to artists’ songs and can push the artist to be more marketable by shaping their sound and reputation. Conflicts are almost always centered on trying to generate the most money and figuring out who gets what portion of proceeds. And the payment hierarchy is imperfect. Artists are the last ones to get paid — after the advertisers, promoters, recording engineers and the label executives themselves. Some of the most famous disputes have included artists like Prince, Pink Floyd and Kenny Rogers.
Furthermore, the digital revolution's impact on music distribution created a whole new set of concerns. In 2011, a widely publicized class action suit led by Eminem examined whether or not iTunes downloads were considered a "sale" or a "license." In the former, Eminem's contract entitled him to 12 percent of the royalties, whereas in the latter Eminem would receive 50 percent of the royalties (and that 38 percent difference adds up fast). This week’s column looks at some drama that has been brushed up due to record labels, contracts and taxes.
A particular artist's relationship with his or her label can be the difference between being a local scene celebrity and a Billboard chart topper. Young Thug, whose fan base includes Drake, Kanye and Nicki Minaj, is trapped in a web of multiple labels claiming exclusive rights to his work. The result has been declined tour invitations and an album that may never see the light of day. Recent online success with "Stoner," however, may give Young Thug some negotiation leverage.
When Big Boi wanted to release his debut album, Sir Lucious Left Foot, under Def Jam Records, several songs featuring Andre 3000 (who also served as a producer for the album), were slated to appear on the record. Outkast's label, Jive, tried to block the release of these tracks, claiming rights to the duo. In the end, their 2008 Grammy-nominated promotional single "Royal Flush," failed to appear on the track listing of the record when it finally rolled out in 2010.
Lupe's third album Lasers released after delay and conflict with Atlantic Records. In 2010, when the album was originally to be released, Lupe publically called out Atlantic for not promoting his prior singles in retaliation over his refusal to agree to new contract terms. Lasers was finally released in March of 2011 and debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 charts.
We've been anticipating Azealia Banks debut Broke With Expensive Tastes since she appeared in 2011 with her hit "212." The album release has been pushed back over 18 months and counting, while Banks has written and rewritten material for the album. In January she publically spoke out about "literally begging to be dropped from Universal."
In early 2012, Kid Cudi tweeted a series of rants blasting his label Universal Republic for not adequately promoting the self-titled debut album for his alternative rock duo WZRD. The artist suspected the label was trying to manipulate him into shifting his attention to continuing his Man on the Moon series as a solo artist.
Last December, Angel Haze leaked her entire album in a wave of fury after multiple release date pushbacks by her label Island/Republic Records. After the leak, the label agreed to release the record at the end of the month in the U.S. and U.K. Read the entire rant on Pitchfork.
While not a direct dispute with a label, Lauryn Hill has found herself in trouble over financial obligations. The artist — whose only release earned five Grammys — served three months in prison last year for evading about $2 million in taxes over the course of 10 years. In an open letter, Hill announced that she is launching a new label in conjunction with Sony Worldwide Entertainment in order to release new music and, according to some, pay back her debts.