Cover Image for Forever-Ever (Part II): Music Futures and Power Semantics

Forever-Ever (Part II): Music Futures and Power Semantics

Words by Alex Siber
Published on 

AWAL to Sony, Believe to Warner, Earth to BlackRock and the Saudi CDF (don’t dismember me!)

Music’s congealment has faced little resistance the past half-century. While the rationale behind majors gobbling up AWAL and Believe boils down, for now, to market share, not copyright ownership, fewer choices spells trouble for progressive contract frameworks. Fairer agreements (shorter length, equal or artist-favoring splits, mutually approved options, increased control over likeness, etc.) face an uphill battle if even more offers trace back to multinational conglomerates and their ‘independent’ cousins.

“We are definitely going to see further consolidation,” says Stem’s Milana Rabkin-Lewis. “Since 2020, a number of the larger indie labels have been acquired: Quality Control by HYBE, Rimas sold a large portion to Sony and 300 sold to Warner, among many other examples."

Skeptics point to those who own their music, sign progressive agreements, and never reach their dreams as proof that perpetuity deals are necessary and the old way works. This ignores the countless artists who don’t own their music, sign regressive deals, and share the same fate. It’s why the ‘artist-friendly’ tagline exists in the first place, however flawed. Defenses of these deals buckle under their own weight.

Argument A: “15% of anything > 100% of zero”

Technically correct: the math’s math. 0.01%, 15%, and 99.99% of anything top 100% of zero.

Beneath the numbers, though, lies something approaching a threat: you’re f*cked on your own. And listen, you might be! We’re nothing without others. Kill the lone superstar myth. Enlisting people who excel in areas we don’t, or can’t make time for, then rewarding their efforts is a surefire way to make progress and enjoy the process. This differs from exploiting desperation. It’s why we have (insufficient) labor laws.

“15% of anything > 100% of zero” and its ilk feed off a rotting environment: cost-of-living crises, decimated media, defunded arts programs, racism’s eternal effects on housing and music education, and a host of other plagues that make the world ripe for ripoffs. Such arguments present a false choice to beleaguered music makers, in which “it’s hard out here” somehow warrants their subjugation.

Argument B: “Labels need perpetuity deals to recoup”

It’s popular to compare record deals to startup funding, but startup investors rarely distribute, market, and develop the company itself. Labels are different. They play an outsized role in the outcomes of their signees (or claim to, hence perpetuity deals) by hiring the people artists rely on for their careers. Any deal that's still in the red might reflect numerous administrative mistakes, not just artistic failures. We have a chance to normalize recoupment models that better reflect the reality of these artist-label relationships: all involved are responsible.

“If you need such a long runway to recoup, maybe it means you, the label, aren’t justifying your business,” indie label operator Chris Cajoleas says. “Maybe you’re not good at marketing.”

Historically, only the artist has had to answer for an unrecouped deal and the subsequent industry fallout. Other companies steer clear, reluctant to place a bet where a rival ‘failed.’ The bag-chasing managers and lawyers jump ship when the commissions from big advances run dry.

Internally, the finance teams of labels, publishers, and other investment outfits apply decay rates to their revenue projections for every current and potential signee or copyright acquisition. These battle-tested curves and figures inform who’s picked up, who’s let go, and on what terms. They also suggest brief runs in the sun for the vast majority of released music (evergreen holiday classics and viral rebirth aside).

“Receiving money for old records is great and helpful,” says a senior A&R who’s worked both within and outside of the major label system. “Indies are always in danger of running out of cash flow. But how many of those records are realistically generating money 15 years from now anyway?”

A given record’s frontline window to garner attention, let alone revenue, is credit card slim compared to the perpetuity deal’s length. All but the biggest hits are relegated to dust collection within five years, most within 18 months, and the sheer volume of new releases adds to the challenge. In practice, very few artists receive the benefit of nourishment. Rollout boxes get checked, pitches get sent, on to the next. If life-of-copyright deals entailed a lifelong commitment to honoring that art, this essay might not exist, and perpetuity deals might make much more sense.

Argument C: “The artist signed it. That’s on them.”

If an artist has two offers from the same company, all else equal but for the term length — one life-of-copyright, one not — and they choose the perpetuity contract, this argument might hold true. As you've read already, many of these signed contracts reflect false choices reliant on an exploitative environment.

Record contracts carry fraught context: a long tradition of swindling (or worse) underaged signees, women, trans women, Black women, immigrants, artists from the periphery, indigenous artists… just about anyone who doesn’t look or speak like Charlie Puth or Billy Joel (I'm a fan of "Vienna," for the record.) No matter who you are, though, you'll confront the limited choice of consolidation. And then there's social pressure. Record deals (and publishing deals) still arm music makers with some proof of validity. When you're surrounded by skeptics out to clown you, those credentials feel like a desert oasis. Few folks bother to check if the paperwork terms are a sign of disrespect. Questionable pluggers and deal-rushers, who call themselves managers just to milk a finder's fee or inflate their 20%, might not read the fine print, either.

For many artists and industry professionals with ties to places and cultures deemed 'foreign' by the Global North, it's laughable to suggest that if a contract gets signed, the person who signed it has real agency. The act of offering a 'cheap' deal to a singer from Lebanon, for example, is linked to international policy failures, western interventions, and domestic corruption, all of which collude and unravel into a political and economic crisis. An artist's bargaining position is compromised when they can't withdraw their own savings from their own bank. The past eight months have additionally stressed the troubling contingencies and conditions placed on liberal birthrights like freedom of speech. Black, Brown, and Muslim sound benders bear the brunt of selective outrage.

“Global South artists and artists of color should think twice before signing record deals with ‘western’ institutions or companies, seeing all the censorship attempts in the west today around speaking out about Palestine,” says Sarah El Miniawy, founder of Simsara Music, stationed between London and Cairo. “The big indies — I don’t know why they’re called indies — continue to own masters. We have American indies owning the masters of African artists. It’s common to hear of big indies and experimental labels signing artists as tokens then hardly giving them attention. They’re instructed to feel grateful.”

“A paradigm shift on such exploitative & frankly colonial dynamics is long overdue,” El Miniawy adds. “In all cases, a music lawyer should be working with you as an artist — someone with a thorough understanding of music law and record deals. We don’t have enough of those in the region."

The well-intentioned label workers operating within these systems — from the most stringent major deals to perpetuity-free frameworks — take steps to minimize damage to the artist and educate at every step.

“Many artists sign their music when they’re 19, 20, 21, if that,” says yet another A&R who’s worked at both indies and majors, requesting anonymity to preserve their employment security. “I don’t think it makes sense for such a young person to commit to a lifetime of their work not belonging to them. I never put a contract in front of an artist if they don’t have a lawyer. I’ll wait. You need to explain deals as they are, especially the parts that make you uncomfortable. There aren’t stupid questions. It’s their right to ask and pester. It’s their art.”

Sadly, this A&R's altruism is uncommon, according to another executive at one of the world’s largest music distribution companies, which works with other labels. Also under the condition of anonymity, they emphasized that the vast majority of labels would never consider waiting for an artist to find a lawyer and vet their offer. The company can save on legal fees and avoid pushback requests to alter the deal structure. Some labels in this scenario will recommend attorneys they’re close with to finish the deal quickly and quietly.

Speculative Futures

With $150,000,000 investments in AI song generators comes human-or-machine uncertainty.

Before the rush to flip prompts into biillion-dollar valuations, music tech had conjured a different kind of Turing Test: track or speculative asset? The answer was predetermined because we live downstream of the 1980s: hyper-financialization already won. The West’s reigning monoculture is one of debt and attempts to escape its clutches. As a result, betting’s total immersion in sports entertainment is inseparable from landlordification at scale; scammer subgenres, streaming farms, and bemoaned influencer culture don’t exist without an oceanic wealth ravine.

Ours is a lifetime of extreme dissonance, at best. And yet industrialized music always participated in, emerged from, or reflected financialization: Bowie Bucks; premium vinyl auctions; mined minerals in the PCs used to host and torrent mp3s; the unit cost economics of HitClips; the commodity price of wood in a thrifted violin. There’s a silver (maybe gray) lining here. Like past generations, we endure the side effects of cash ruling everything around us. Unlike the past, financial forces dominate music in plain sight, top of mind, not just behind closed doors. Shared experience grants opportunities to learn and remix lessons. Ubiquitous injustice foments an insatiable hunger for alternatives, propelled by the ongoing progressive mass movements of the 2020s. Kids first introduced to the entertainment business by Entourage are now infusing their ambitions with insights from Edward Said. This past school year, high schoolers born too late for Vinny Chase witnessed government censorship and borrowed notes from 1960s anti-war protests. These currents reshape the values of society; music isn’t immune to a new Overton Window.

Modern data access and payment systems are also cause for optimism: they make life more challenging for a traditional breed of music industry swindler. As we’ve discussed, though, data alone can’t counter goliath corporate structures and their outsized power. This holds doubly true when that same data helps unlock new incentives for anti-artist, life-of-rights structures.

Universal Music's payment and data portal
Universal Music's payment and data portal

To curb perpetuity deals via grassroots pressure, organizers may lobby for most-favored-nations-inspired pacts between the major labels and Merlin’s network of independents. The baseline ask: prohibition of contracts that (1) exceed X number of years and (2) reduce the artist royalty below Y percentage. Nuclear disarmament programs prove that competing factions can acquiesce to achieve an overarching benefit, be it annihilation avoidance or a healthier creative ecosystem. In the less complex, less terrifying world of music, mutual assurances can also work wonders. An interlocked commitment to retire unfair deal terms helps remove the game theory threat of fearful self-interest. Otherwise, any given music org can only assume its rivals will maximize their deal lengths and revenue percentages, then opt for the same strategy (or risk cash flow disadvantage).

Ranking high on the list of life-of-rights deal ironies: expecting a signed artist to stay locked in a contract for decades longer, in almost all cases, than those who signed them, marketed them, and helped build or obliterate their career. Labels rarely grant artists a key person clause in their contracts. This means they can’t renegotiate or leave if a critical staff member exits. Licensing deals can have trap doors of their own, too: the countdown to reversion may not start until after a project has recouped. If you sign a 10-year license but it takes 20 years to recoup, you’ll have to wait 30 years total before you can it call your own again.

Regulation presents another vector of pressure on rightsholder companies. Without it, moral appeals tend to struggle against the inertia of Fiduciary Responsibility™️, and interindustry pacts are more susceptible to bad actors. We have stateside legal precedence to build with. In 1976, Congress approved the U.S. Copyright Act’s Section 203, which lets artists reclaim their rights after 35 years. Without this, “perpetuity” would adhere to federal copyright mandates, which last until decades after the artist or author dies. It’s a win in need of upgrades. Section 203 puts the onus on the artist to free themselves after a perpetuity deal expires. They must notify the rightsholder years ahead of time, and they only have a limited window to request reversion. (Section 203 also only applies to music released after 1978, sealing troves of pre-78 art in company archives, including questionably acquired music created by Black artists and countless periphery musicians batched into the East-India-Trading-Co-type title of “world music.”) Artists who’ve completed shorter-term licensing deals often chase down their former release partner, too, suggesting an industry-wide need for improved reversion protocols. We have the tools to enact this reversion automatically, today, with Python if-then statements, if not a Splits smart contract. As the thicket of swaps, trades, acquisitions, and selloffs slides copyrights around like an air hockey puck, it's never to soon to start advocating. Addressing this issue is the least we can do.

Perpetuity ownership structures and traditional royalty splits implicitly argue that artists matter less than the company. TraTraTrax, Minaret, Majazz, UMAY, Topshelf, prized anti-contract label Dischord, and countless others have forsaken that approach. It’s tempting to discount them for operating at a smaller scale than larger music orgs; instead, we should look to them for guidance, experiment with the examples they set, and recognize their version of independence.

“We’re extremely secure in our model,” says Matthewdavid, artist and founder of the revered label Leaving Records. “The vast majority of artists we’ve worked with have kept their records with us over the last 15 years. A few have decided to leave, and they have that freedom. These days we might do a one-year license and a 30-day notice for termination. The idea of owning someone’s idea is so awkward. Art is treated as a commodity and there are businesses modeled after that in our economic system — I get it, and to some extent we have to play that game, but we like to find alternatives so we can reclaim our value on this planet. We want to be in unison and collaboration, not dominant over others.”

“We don’t lock our artists into lengthy exclusivity deals,” adds DJ Lomalinda, cofounder of the renowned Colombia-based label TraTraTrax. “Perhaps that’s more common nowadays, especially with DIY up-and-coming labels. To each their own on why they hold artists to such extremes — we understand that for many, the opportunity of closing a long-term deal means stability and other benefits to their lives — but we have colleagues or friends that can’t release with us because of deals like these. All artists, featured artists, or collaborating artists own their work or the percentage of the work they’re [involved with]. We’re simply the representatives for that recording.”

Across the Caribbean, in Florida, a budding indie label with deep communal roots 180’d, reversing their life-of-copyright deals.

“We’ve always viewed music as a tool for community development, and a means to create context for artists through event programming, especially coming from Gainesville, which, at the time we started, lacked that for hip-hop,” says Jahi Khalfani, co-owner of indie label Dion Dia and one of the partners in Florida co-op How Bazar, alongside Palestinian-Lebanese organizer Laila Fakhoury. “Initially, we went the traditional route with contracts, but that distracted from the relationships we had with the artists. We voided every contract, reverting all rights back to the artists. We focus on representing, not owning.”

To reiterate, most music companies have at least one person, if not hundreds, who cherish the artists they’re in the trenches with. (*Some have fewer after mass layoffs once again coincided with massive profits ㋛). These workers play a critical role in servicing and amplifying some of the most beloved songs ever written and recorded, from Michael Jackon to Mk.Gee. They toil amidst rent increases, board pressures, internal squabbles, and insufferable Ari Gold clones to remember this is about the music, those who make it, and the people who cherish it. Impassioned industry workers have an opportunity to reform perpetuity deals, if not dismantle them outright, by calling for new guidelines and backing them up with petitions and withheld labor, to start. This might include:

  • Artist royalty floors that prevent sub-50% artist splits
  • Standardized relationships between advance size, artist earning projections, and splits
  • Mandatory net profit splits that recoup from both artist’s share and label’s share
  • Artist control over trademark, voice, image, likeness, and AI training permissions
  • Preset timelines in which labels must either commit to an album option or release the artist
  • Preset checkpoints in which artist and label must mutually agree to continue their deal

Even in sectors as ancient, mangled, and hyperglobal as coffee, more producers, roasters, and consumers expect supply chain transparency, origin remuneration, and public debate about the best ways to reckon with that industry’s underbellies. Imperfect but admirable measures taken to value coffee above its exploitative C market commodity price — like paying and documenting a quality bonus to farmers for cultivating a particular bean varietal, or publicizing the price per kilogram of coffee at various stages of the supply chain as Sey does — feel translatable to music's dilemmas (imagine if Apple’s Get Info or Spotify’s Credits featured deal splits). The most ambitious orgs try to understand living costs for the farmers they partner with and bake that calculus into the per-unit pricing. These actions are self-set and voluntarily upheld.

An excerpt from coffee roaster Tim Wendelbo's transparency report
An excerpt from coffee roaster Tim Wendelbo's transparency report
Coffee Collective's Quality Bonus
Coffee Collective's Quality Bonus

“The perpetuity problem also requires alternative funding mechanisms, like Canada's FACTOR grants, that don't create a rigid binary between being born with a silver spoon or being forced to debt finance your dreams on bad terms,” says Jon Tanners, manager to Take A Daytrip, Michael Uzowuru, & Dahi, and an accomplished alum of the majors.

Politics beyond music will dictate what's possible within music; we can't expect Spotify alone, despite all its faults, to fill holes that governments should plug (re: healthcare, living wage). At the same time, we can apply lessons of past and present politics to music right now. Two months ago, in the American state of Massachusetts, both chambers of congress approved bills that mandated full salary transparency for employees of companies with 25+ workers. They also agreed to require salary range transparency for job listings. This consensus will likely help crunch various systemic wage gaps, which plague the music industry. Applying efforts like these to recording budgets, publishing advances, and catalog valuation formulas can benefit artists and workers alike. Meanwhile, reports suggest data-led hype signings at labels have backfired at alarming rates, and organizing is on more peoples’ minds. As United Musicians and Allied Workers’ following rapidly balloons (along with fair criticisms worth heeding), platforms like Indify enforce artist ownership in the deals they facilitate (the more opinionated product decisions rooted in artist equity, the better), and programmers use Solidity to encode public, automatic, instant splits for music makers that can address rights reversion, we have the means to end the perpetuity deal, step by step.