Words by Caron Williams
Jay Z released his triumphant 13th studio album, 4:44, last year and dropped countless gems as he has since his Reasonable Doubt days. One of the most fascinating parts of the album was his commentary on wealth, financial freedom, ownership and navigating the pitfalls of the music industry. On the melodic track Moonlight, which features a sample from The Fugees’ Fu-Gee-La, Jay Z reflects, “Y’all niggas still signin’ deals? Still? / After all they done stole, for real? / After what they done to our Lauryn Hill?” alluding to Lauryn Hill’s turbulent record label battles.
Historically, some of the biggest artists within hip hop and popular culture have voiced their grievances against record labels, a sentiment which has become much more pronounced over recent years. We’ve witnessed public fall outs with many hip hop artists locally over the past year and the rise of independent artists such as Chance The Rapper, Shane Eagle, Frank Ocean, etc. which begs the question, does the record label model still make sense within the modern music industry structure?
An interesting case in point is that of Lil Uzi Vert and Atlantic Records. Uzi’s XO Tour Llif3 became a massive hit last year, accumulating 1.3 billion audio and video streams, which resulted in Atlantic Records amassing approximately R56 million, whilst Uzi walked away with only R11 million. Many may argue that record labels take a huge risk in investing in artists and that they run a business with the aim of making a substantial profit, but the question is at what cost? Is the exchange between artists and labels really a fair one?
Closer to home, we witnessed the public fallout with Ambitiouz Entertainment and a number of their former artists. The climax of the fallout resulted in Ambitiouz exercising a vicious legal assault against Fifi Cooper, which prohibits her from performing any of the music she created whilst signed to the Ambitiouz stable. Granted, a great level of legal and musical acumen is needed to ensure artists understand the nature of the deals they’re signing and the positive and negative implications of them, but in a country where many young people have turned to hip hop music to escape poverty, who wouldn’t sign a deal offered to you if it’s the only option you have? There’s something inherently exploitative about preying on the dreams of young, hopeful artists, when many of them don’t even know what a 360 deal entails.
Whilst the road to independence is an incredibly challenging one and often sees aspirant artists take a longer time to achieve success, the payoff appears to ultimately be more beneficial. As streaming and newer innovations within the music industry arise, it opens up the industry to more talent as the barrier to entry isn’t as limited. We’ve witnessed the likes of J Molley forge fledging careers by utilizing the internet in really smart ways. The reality is that as music consumption and the music industry as a whole evolves, record labels haven’t caught up with that evolution and they’re fighting to keep older models in place as those have historically been most beneficial to them. With more streaming giants emerging and independent artists such as Chance The Rapper negotiating deals directly with the likes of Apple Music, the record label industry is silently collapsing. Should new acts sign to record labels? Should there be more education available to them regarding deals and whose responsibility is that?