The royalty shaft

Remember Sisyphus? He was the mortal punished by the Greek gods and condemned to a life of hapless labor, forced to spend the rest of his days trying to push a rock up a hill. Whenever he’d get it to the top, the rock would roll back from its own weight.

In contemporary society, Sisyphus is to the artist what the Greek gods are to the music industry.

By now, you know this story. Michael Jackson made history on July 6 by becoming the biggest pop star in history to cry foul about a major record company. He actually did a lot more than that. He accused the music industry of conspiring against artists. Then he screamed racism at the top of his delicate lungs. He named folks, calling Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola “racist” and “devilish.”

Jacko got his rocks off that day. At the ripe age of 43 — twilight years in pop music — and in the face of the second-poorest record sales he’s registered in his solo career (Invincible had sold 6 million copies worldwide at press time, a disappointment for Mike), Jackson still managed to steal the spotlight.

All this took place at a press conference publicizing a music summit held by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. NAN’s primary platform had more to do with fairness between artists and record companies than racism, but Jackson’s diatribe diverted the public’s attention.

Pundits have called his stance a case of “right message, wrong messenger,” saying a man whose money flows like tap water has no reason to make such claims. Others have called him simply bitter, a harpy in need of attention and money — Invincible cost a reported $55 million to produce and promote.

Does this spectacle make Jacko look foolish or opportunistic? Of course. But I dare you to give him 10 years. You may end up crediting him with blowing the lid off a powder keg of imbalance the same way he called MTV out for not playing black videos in the ’80s.

To understand the depth of Jackson’s issue, look past the plastic surgery, the perm Snoop Dogg would die for and the Little Lord Fauntleroy voice. Look at the core issue: the music industry, the artist and the business relationship between the two. Does it need restructuring?

Why have Courtney Love, Sheryl Crow and Don Henley established their own distribution, promotion and tour networks outside of their respective record companies? Why have Stevie Wonder, Najee, Doug E. Fresh, Chaka Khan, Prince, James Mtume and Roberta Flack teamed up through the Artist Empowerment Coalition to fight for ownership of master recordings and limitations on long-term contracts, among other things? (See more by visiting

I recently spoke with L. Londell McMillan, the attorney who “emancipated” Prince from his contract with Warner Bros., and broke the Lox from its deal with Bad Boy, the record company owned and operated by Sean “P. Poppa Diddy Puff” Combs. McMillan feels that the business model for the music industry needs to be changed, specifically the music industry’s current method of negotiating and executing recording contracts.

“You have to partner with more artists,” McMillan says, “in a way that artists take risks and conserve costs on the front end, yet profit from their own work on the back end.” McMillan contends that recording contracts are set up like sharecropping agreements. He also says that the music industry involves itself in “institutional cheating.” Of course, that all needs to be broken down in layman’s terms.

Take this example. In a standard recording contract, record companies take 20 percent-25 percent off the top for a fee called “packaging deduction.” Donald Passman writes in his text All You Need to Know About the Music Business, that this is “an artificial way to reduce the artist’s royalty.” So packaging deduction doesn’t exist. Companies take another 15 percent for free goods — promotional items. Right away, the artist sees perhaps 60 percent of the total profit from the recording.

Then, there’s the matter of royalties. The average artist royalty falls somewhere between $1 and $1.25 per record. But the costs of producing and promoting the record, as well as the cost for the video, are taken out of that amount.

Still with me? Let’s summarize the example. If your royalty is $1, and your album sells 500,000 copies, you gross $500,000 minus the 40 percent for packaging deduction and free goods. So you’ve got about 300 grand. Don’t go to the bank yet, champ. You better hope your production, promotion and video costs are less than $300,000, or you’ll be the brokest cat with a fly video on BET, looking paid and renting diamond necklaces to wear.

For artists, disorganization is the passport to ruin. Music may be the only major industry in America without organized representation for skilled laborers — artists. According to McMillan, medical coverage is usually not offered in recording contracts. My health benefits may be better than those of Nelly or the Roots. Imagine touring 30 cities, changing climates and experiencing hundreds of unfamiliar environments, without being protected against illness or injury.

Why don’t artists organize (read: unionize) themselves to fight for better contracts? Is it because most artists are just that … artists? Are they more concerned with the flow of the craft than the flow of the cash? The Artist Empowerment Coalition proves this notion to be relative to the person in question, but it’s still a valid question.

Without an organized front, the music industry is almighty because it benefits from an abundant supply of talent. If you want to put up a fight for your masters and demand that the company change the way it does business, you become a risky investment. There are 10 artists just as talented as you waiting in the wings, coveting your spot. As Bernie Mac would say, they don’t want no trouble. They just want to shine.

This mentality alone can kill any notion of organization.

So how does the artist create longevity and ownership in music? I asked McMillan what he would do if his own son said he wanted to be a recording artist, regardless of Daddy’s teachings. He says he would give his son a three-step process.

• Become a songwriter. That way, you can retain ownership of your publishing (songwriting). A song is 50 percent music, 50 music lyrics. If you do either of these, you are officially a songwriter entitled to your publishing.

• Learn how to count. Sports teams study film, students study notes and scientists collect data and hypothesize before experimenting. Study the contract before you sign it. And study the industry before you approach it.

• Go for the best deal. Know that, unless you’re an independent label, you are an investment. The major label will make the lion’s share, but some will give you a fairer shake than others. You just have to know how to spot it.

Many artists consider independent record companies their road to greater gain. There are a ton of them in the Detroit area. But what constitutes an independent label? Answer: Ownership, which means there are fewer indies out here than you think. Bad Boy is almost independent, as are Roc-a-fella, the New No Limit and Cash Money Records. But they fall short because they operate on joint venture agreements with larger companies that allow them to chart the career paths of their artists while utilizing the promotional and distribution machines that the larger companies have. But they only own half their master recordings. White Stripes, on the other hand, have a deal with V2 that gives the band complete ownership of its master tapes. The White Stripes record deal is nearly unprecedented in the music biz.

When you think independent, think ownership. As in, masters, mine. Publishing, mine. Think Tha Row. Think Prince. Makes you wonder who’s really shinin’, doesn’t it?

“Do I know one artist happy with his deal?,” says Aaron Hall, former lead singer of Guy. “No. Not one.” Hall is working the gospel play circuit, because the Guy experience left him little more than all the sex he could handle during the group’s heyday. He asserts that he wrote all the lyrics to Guy’s first two albums, but Teddy Riley owns the publishing to his songs.

The lesson here is, if you want to be an artist, don’t be Toni Braxton or Tevin Campbell, performers who could sing their asses off, but didn’t write or produce. Don’t be Aaron Hall, who sang likewise, but for some ungodly reason, trusted someone to be custodian to his property. Unless these talented artists invested their tour money wisely, they’re nine-to-fivin’ it again.

Be Prince. Stevie Wonder. Sheryl Crow. Don Henley. Learn to write. Learn to count. Choose the best deal. Sound advice.

Khary Kimani Turner drops beats and spits words for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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