It’s the year 1990, a 13-year-old Kanye West is in the basement of the south side Chicago home he lives in with his mum, Donda West. There is a microphone hanging from the ceiling by a wire hanger and West is pouring his heart and soul into a track that mum Donda is helping him pay for to bring his dreams to life.
Several years later West, who is now in his late teens, is involved in a violent car crash that nearly kills him, leaving his jaw wired shut. West sits in a hospital bed drinking through a straw, the pain aches down his body as his dreams of being a rap star seem lost.
His one request while recovering is a drum machine. He slowly sits up in the hospital bed and raps painfully through the tight wire, fingers padding the drums to produce a song called “Through the Wire” that later convinces renown producer Roc-A-Fella to let him finally record an album.
Later in life West is quoted “To nearly lose your life, to nearly lose your mouth, your voice, your whole face, as a rapper… “Through The Wire” is the worst thing that could’ve possibly happen to me, and now it’s obviously the best thing.”
What West didn’t think about as he signed on the dotted line of that contract is that the song he worked on while he recovered from near death, with a painfully wired shut mouth leading to his first single and album ‘College Dropout’, does not belong to him despite the trauma that he withheld to create it.
The year is now 2020 and West is one of the highest grossing rappers and controversial artists of all time. He posts one of his ten music contracts with Universal Music Group on Twitter. The tweets are the beginning of a barrage that slam record labels like Universal and Sony that have clauses that give them the rights to own your music masters rather than the artists.
West posts a video presumed to be himself urinating on one of his 21 Grammys in a toilet, a decision he does consciously and purposefully to put his middle finger up at his record label and in solitude with every other artist that also feels the pain of laying their artistry out for the world, to then be told they do not own it.
One of Wests rivals, producer Hit Boy came out on Instagram and stated though he doesn’t like Kanye personally or professionally, he agrees with him that artists should own rights to own their masters. Hit Boy famously produced one of Wests songs ‘Niggas in Paris’ and claims Universal “don’t have it in them to be fair”.
The record label in question is Universal Music Group, one of the top three record labels in the world with stars like Lady Gaga, Rhianna, Lana Del Ray and One Direction to name a few.
It isn’t the first time an artist has spoken out about the contracts they sign. Taylor Swift posted on social media in 2019 that her fight against record label Big Machine over the selling of her masters to a man she claims ‘has struck her with anxiety each time the mere mention of his name in her presence is made’ – Scooter Braun.
It started a public war between the two and shed light on an artist whose song writing has been acclaimed with ten Grammy awards is still held on a tight leash by a music label. Swift consciously has spent years noting her soulful writing comes from her diaries written as young as twelve, calling for the public to assist her to fight against label Big Machine.
The unfathomable truth of artists still not owning their masters isn’t a new issue, it can be dated back to 1985 when Michael Jackson bought the rights to the Beatles masters. Jackson then commercialized many of them which Paul McCartney spoke out about. The Beatles had previously refused numerous offers, McCartney explaining, “It kind of spoils it. Just takes the edge off it. Our songs are tending to get a little commercialized now, which I’m not too wild on.” The purchases ended McCartney and Jacksons’ friendship, allegedly.
Jackson remained tight lipped about the entire saga, only discussing it in his 1988 autobiography claiming, “Paul and I both learned the hard way about business, and the importance of publishing and royalties and the dignity of song writing.”
Artists like West put the work into writing, singing, producing music for us to enjoy and they get paid lavishly – that is not the debate. West himself tweeted in September,
“When you sign a music deal you sign away your rights. Without the masters you can’t do anything with your own music. Someone else controls where it’s played and when it’s played. Artists have nothing except the fame, touring and merch”.
Simon Tam, artist and New York Times author of “The Power on Repurposing a Slur” says, “The reality is that signing a deal with a record label is more like securing a high business interest loan from a bank, except the terms are worse.”
The rights to the music are a long-standing divide between record labels and artists. Spotify pays whoever holds the rights to a song anywhere from $0.006 to $0.0084 per play. The rights “holder” can then split these earning between the record label, producers, artists, and songwriters. It depends on the contracts as to whether the artist does get paid.
According to Simon Tam, “while some might argue that permanent ownership of his (West) masters isn’t fair, those were terms that he agreed to at the time”. It goes to the reality that artists don’t understand their contracts and often the lawyer is also serving their best interest in getting paid rather than securing their client gets the best deal.
West has declared war on Universal Music Group and as his tweets continue to go viral, his plan appears to be not unhinging the billionaire empire which is major record labels across the world. The question now is the price of your artistry worth the billions of dollars artists are paid or is it time for labels to make some changes? Time would show that it isn’t a fight independent artists can win let alone established, but one artists like Kanye are hoping gives caution to up and coming artists before signing on the dotted line.