Unpaid Royalties is a series about the ways that the music industry exploits Black artists—and what needs to change. Read more here.
In March, Megan Thee Stallion shocked fans when she revealed she was unable to release new music due to a contract she had signed with a Houston label in 2018. It didn’t make sense to anyone who witnessed her seismic come up. “Hot Girl Summer” was not only the definitive song of last year’s warm-weather season, it also grew legs and transformed into a marketing mammoth for big brands. When the Houston rapper detailed how little she knew about the contract she had inked—which granted the label a major cut of her earnings from albums, live shows, and even TV and film appearances, as well as deeming it the legal owner of her stage name and her real name—it showed that shady deals weren’t just a relic of the past. And they weren’t only happening to unknown artists.
The backlash was bizarre. Critics faulted Megan for signing a shady contract instead of questioning why one had been presented to her. Hordes of average Twitter users turned into entertainment lawyers overnight, armed with everything but the knowledge of what actually separates a fair deal from an exploitative one. But they weren't the only ones who were clueless about how contracts worked—many, many artists were—and are—too. For them, Megan's story wasn’t just hypothetical. This was their livelihood, and they often find themselves in a similar situation.
What happened to Megan Thee Stallion is one of many examples of how rampant racism, contractual loopholes, and the industry's history of exploiting Black artists can turn a musician’s success into a nightmare.
All music is Black music, and our musical footprint doesn't just begin with hip-hop. The modern music industry is built on the brilliance, ingenuity, and hard work of Black musicians. Rock 'n' roll can thank Sister Rosetta Tharpe for her foundational work on the guitar, and Little Richard and Chuck Berry for serving as architects of what rock performances could be. The country music establishment's unwillingness to let Black artists in, as seen with the ascent of newer artists like Lil Nas X and Breland, is a slap in the face to DeFord Bailey, who was not only the genre's first Black star but the first artist to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Black women, like Marsha Wash, were the unsung heroes of the house music of the late 80s and early 90s, but Wash was rarely credited for her work. By the time 90s house music birthed stars like CeCe Peniston, Crystal Waters, and Robin S., people knew their names, but not many people knew they were Black. There isn't enough time in the day to count all the ways the musical contributions of pioneers of soul, R&B, and hip-hop have been overlooked, only for white artists building on their legacy—like Miley Cyrus, Adele, or worse, Macklemore—to be validated by institutions like The Grammys.
To this day, those Black artists are stolen from, underpaid, and consistently exploited by industry gatekeepers and their non-Black peers. But we knew that. What you may not have known is how we got here, and where we’re going. That’s what Unpaid Royalties aims to expose: How, for instance, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 disrupted Black radio, taking tastemaking power away from local Black DJs and putting it into the hands of major media conglomerations. Why pop music seems to be a viable option only for white artists. How police forces in some of the country's biggest cities have heavily funded “rap units” dedicated to specifically surveilling the perceived threats of rap artists. And, of course, what music deals still look like these days, and why Black artists are often more vulnerable to the most exploitative ones.
A few weeks after Megan’s controversy, the world as we knew it changed. Coronavirus disrupted every industry and effectively halted our daily routines. Life in this new, unpredictable world was scary, but what was more menacing was what stayed the same. Black people were still dying. Since May, I've written the names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd more times than I can count.
This year's Black Lives Matter movement demanded change in every field, and the music industry was not spared. On June 2, Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas launched #TheShowMustBePaused, an initiative to stop the music world for one day to bring awareness to its part in institutional racism. "The music industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry," their mission statement reads. "An industry that has profited predominantly from Black art. Our mission is to hold accountable the industry at large, including major corporations and their partners, who benefit from the efforts, struggles, and successes of Black people."
What followed #TheShowMustBePaused was a sea of black squares, listening tours, and eventually, millions of dollars in donations from music labels to Black Lives Matter and other relevant charities. Following pressure from The Weeknd and Are You a Dub?, an anonymous Instagram page tracking donations, Universal Music Group, home to labels like Def Jam, Interscope, and Capitol pledged $25 million to a "Change Fund." The plan mapped out an extensive plan for donations, internal change, and programming as a promise that these initiatives would be "only the first wave, with more action to follow." Warner Music Group, which also owns Atlantic Records, donated $100 million to Black Lives Matter. Republic Records and the Grammys both removed the word "Urban" from their verbiage, a label that had become synonymous with Black music in the industry. Eight days after Agyemang and Thomas's pause, the music industry seemed to be changing its tune. All it took was decades of complacency and the deaths of countless Black Americans.
But money thrown at charities doesn't free artists from predatory deals. When it comes to Black artists, the fine print perpetuates systemic racism and makes it impossible to close the wealth gap and level the playing field. As former entertainment lawyer Tonya Butler told VICE staffer Drew Schwartz, "Anybody can get a bad deal—but because of the inequities in education, and the economic disparity that exists, Black artists and brown artists are more susceptible to getting a bad deal… I liken it to COVID: Everybody can get it, but Black and brown people are affected more intensely than others because of systemic inequities."
What the stories in Unpaid Royalties show is this: The music industry needs to evaluate its broken structures—and use the shards that remain to do away with nepotism, unequal pay, and all the inequity that bars Black creatives from any tangible sense of ownership. These stories only scratch the surface on the ways rap policing, music programming, and the whitewashing of music journalism contribute to an unjust situation for Black musicians. Each is representative of another broken system—but if there's anything surviving 2020 has taught us, it's that systems are meant to be destroyed and rebuilt.