Opinion | Record labels need to help not hurt artists

By Rachel Soloff, Senior Staff Columnist

Recently, Taylor Swift has made the news, and no, it’s not for her feud with Kanye West or for a third surprise album.

Swift’s record company, Big Machine Records, sold the masters for her first six albums to Scooter Braun, music executive and manager of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande in late June of 2019. Braun then sold the masters for $300 million to Shamrock Capital, a private equity firm in June 2020. Swift has recently begun the process of rerecording her music so Braun and Shamrock don’t profit off of the masters.

Swift isn’t the only artist who has been deceived into signing a bad contract by a record company. Countless others, including Prince and Megan Thee Stallion, have been trapped in horrible contracts with greedy record companies and have had to go through grueling legal battles to get ownership of their music. This isn’t how it should be. Record companies should try to help artists, not trap them. The record industry needs to change its system so artists can thrive instead of getting stuck into bad contracts and tense legal battles, or artists will find ways to work without them.

Many artists are very young when signing contracts and are dazzled by the prospect of fame that record companies provide. Because of this, they are more likely to sign anything put in front of them without consulting a lawyer. Taylor Swift signed her contract with Big Machine Records in 2005 when she was just 16 years old. Megan Thee Stallion was just 20 when she signed hers. Record companies see the talent and naivete of these young artists and prey on it, making them sign contracts in which the artist essentially gives up everything to the record company.

The way that contracts work with most big record companies right now is that when an artist is signed, they become a worker for hire for the label. The recording company commissions an artist to create an album that it will own for a select amount of years. This forces the artist to earn the money back for the record company, and therefore their album has to succeed. This is even harder than it used to be because instead of selling albums, artists have to earn streams, which take longer to make revenue from. This puts an immense amount of pressure on a young artist and makes them willing to sign bad contracts, because according to the record label, that’s the way it works.

Most of the contracts also own the masters — or the vocal recordings — of the artist’s songs for a select amount of time, usually between 20-35 years, which is what happened to Taylor Swift. This allows the record companies to make money off of the streams, while artists only get an advance on royalties. Owning the masters also means that record companies can license the artist’s songs to be on TV or in movies, even if the artist doesn’t necessarily want to do this, and the record companies would be the ones to profit from it. Artists who create, write, sing and produce their own music should be the ones who are making the money. The record labels work in a way in which they are the ones profiting without doing any of the work besides funding the projects these artists make.

Because these artists work “for hire,” they need to make money for their label, even if they feel restricted within their contract. Following the successful release of his album “Channel Orange,” Frank Ocean had artistic differences with his label, but because of his contract, Ocean had to make one more album so his label could earn back its money. He put out “Endless,” an Apple Music exclusive, to fulfill his contract and then independently released his critically acclaimed album “Blonde” the same night. Ocean had to put out music in order to fulfill a contract that restricted him. An artist as talented as Ocean should be able to work at his own pace because, as was seen before, he can be successful. By releasing “Blonde,” the album he felt proud of, independently, Ocean was able to profit off of his own art without the pressure from the label.

Ocean isn’t the only artist who has begun independently releasing their music. Most notably, Chance the Rapper self-released all of his music and had it available for free online. He was the first artist to receive a “Best New Artist” Grammy for a streaming-only release. Clearly, artists can be successful when they release music independently, and they avoid the manipulation of a contract. Over the past 10 years, the internet has been a great way for artists to figure out how to make their own music, release this music for free on platforms like SoundCloud and Bandcamp and promote their music via social media.

Record companies should feel threatened by this. They need to change the way they make contracts and how they hold new artists hostage both financially and creatively. Taylor Swift making her legal battle public shows people how predatory record labels can be and will hopefully influence more musicians to independently release their music or negotiate their contracts with record labels better.

Rachel Soloff writes primarily about the entertainment industry and social justice. Write to her at [email protected]