On the most basic level, under these agreements, any original master recordings you produce while under that contract are owned by your label in perpetuity—something that hasn't changed since Little Richard's heyday. In exchange for your masters, the label gives you a cash advance, part of which goes straight into your bank account, and part of which covers the cost of recording. Once your music is released, you begin the process of paying that advance back. You do that with the earnings from your releases—but you're only entitled to a percentage of those earnings, at a royalty rate set by the label.Let's say a label gives you a $1 million advance to make an album, and a 10 percent royalty rate on your masters. Once your album has generated $1 million, whether that's through streams or sales, only 10 percent of that—$100,000—is yours, and it goes directly towards paying back your advance. Your album would have to net $10 million before you've managed to pay back your advance. Then, and only then, will you begin to see royalty money hit your bank account.To Butler, the concept of a label owning your masters in perpetuity is fundamentally flawed."Technically, the label is owning something that you paid for," Butler said. "In how many industries do you pay for something that you don't own? Only music. When my bank loans me money to buy a house, they own the house—but once I pay them back, I own the house. That does not happen in music. Once you pay the label back, they still own it."
"So much of what we see in the record industry today came from the 50s.”
Without access to contracts, the only window we have into how record companies may be exploiting Black artists today comes when those artists publicly air their frustrations with their labels. During a 2017 appearance on The Breakfast Club, Tyga claimed that his former label, Cash Money, swindled him out of $12 million by supplying him with the same lawyer that was representing the record company. Back in March, Megan Thee Stallion sued her label, 1501 Certified Entertainment, claiming that after locking her into an unfair contract when she was 20 years old, the company has refused to renegotiate it. Lil Uzi Vert, Rich Homie Quan, Mase, and countless other Black artists have cried foul about what they say are exploitative deals—but because we can't dissect their contracts, there's no way to confirm those allegations for sure.
"We can say that because of systemic reasons, Black artists are getting worse deals—but we need to be able to see the extent to which that is true.”