We explore the warped power dynamic behind record companies and the creation of contracts which bind their creative control; ownership of music; and even free will. Is it time for an end to these sell-your-soul-to-the-devil contracts? Or should young artists know what to expect?
Kanye West has recently brought to light the fact that many artists, himself included, do not own their masters. This essentially means that the copyright of their original music has been transferred to the ownership of another party in a legal agreement. Kanye shared screenshots of his recording contracts to Twitter, including those with Universal Music Group, who he spoke out against, claiming: “I will do everything in my legal power and use my voice until all artist contracts are changed starting with getting my masters for my children.” You might be thinking that artists like Kanye who have, in recent years, spoken out against their record labels, don’t have a leg to stand on – after all, whether the contracts were fair or not, the artists signed them. However, that would be an oversimplification of what is a deep-rooted problem of exploitation within the music industry.
You may remember when Kanye’s long-term adversary, Taylor Swift, spoke out about similar issues a few years ago. Her battle was primarily with Scooter Braun, who acquired Big Machine Records in 2019. He consequently acquired Swift’s first six albums, with the singer-songwriter claiming she was never given the opportunity to buy her masters from previous Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta. Therefore, she would not have any control over what could be done in future with the music she created over a 13-year contract with the label. Of course, there is no denying that these artists have read and signed these contracts and known that they would not own their masters. Yet, Swift pointed out in a post to Tumblr, this idea underestimates the power imbalance that music executives hold when signing eager, ambitious teenagers who go on to be successful beyond anything they could have imagined, stating: “This is what happens when you sign a deal at 15 to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept. And when that man says music has value, he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it.” Swift went on to speak about how Borchetta knew of her negative history with Scooter Braun, yet sold her masters to him anyway. In viewing this issue as a clear contract, we fail to recognise the real issue of music CEOs like Borchetta and Braun abusing their power and preying on the naivety of young artists in order to make themselves more money. Music becomes less attached to the musician, and is just another commodity to be capitalised upon, regardless of the feelings of, and repercussions for, those who created it.
Another, more harrowing example, is that of Kesha, who, in 2014, sued producer Dr Luke in the hopes of voiding all their contracts based on how he, in the words of the lawsuit, “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused [Kesha] to the point where [she] nearly lost her life.” Dr Luke countersued for defamation and breach of contract. In February 2016, after a judge denied a preliminary injunction, Kesha tweeted: “This case has never been about a renegotiation of my record contract — it was never about getting a bigger, or a better, deal. This is about being free from my abuser. I would be willing to work with Sony if they do the right thing and break all ties that bind me to my abuser.” These contacts are more than just unfair in terms of their rejection of the artist’s connection to their work, but in their ability to negate the artist’s autonomy completely: unable to escape, even in the worst of situations. In April of that year, a judge dismissed all of Kesha’s abuse claims and the singer dropped the charges the following August, stating: “the lawsuit [has been] so heavy on my once free spirit, and I can only pray to one day feel that happiness again.” Even in 2020, Kesha remains tied to Dr Luke and her abuser profits from all music she continues to make.
These are but a few examples, of which there are countless: Beyoncé doesn’t own her masters, they belong to Columbia Records, and Ariana Grande’s masters are the property of Republic Records. Whilst I’m not often one to agree with Kanye recently, it’s true that the contracts that musicians sign when they are young and hopeful for the beginning of their musical career prey on this ambition, and do not account for the complications which arise when they become successful and therefore even more vulnerable to exploitation.