The music industry may still be picking its way through Kanye West’s self-leaked Universal Music Group deals, but West is making it clear that his campaign around artist contracts is more than just a moment on Twitter.
“The desired effect will only be achieved when every artist owns their masters. I’m Team ‘Free Artists.’ I’m committed to doing whatever is necessary so artists own their own copyrights,” West told Billboard in an interview published last night.
West said that he is now working with advisors including lawyer Joel Katz, Hipgnosis Songs founder Merck Mercuriadis and Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind on his plans, amid “discussions” with UMG and its parent company Vivendi.
“The music business is new now. You sign to a major, you put your songs in a huge pot of titles they use to negotiate with. Their power now comes not only in selling but investing our songs into Apps, DSP platforms and so on,” said West.
“We create their value in getting our songs to earn us sales, but also equity… Our catalogs, combined with other catalogs, equals power. If we contribute to that power, we get paid. Period. That’s for all. Every single record involved in helping get an equity play over the line is a shareholder in the equity it gained.”
These are important talking points, although it’s also true that artists did get paid from the most high-profile example of an equity play getting over the line – when Spotify went public, with the major labels and Merlin (via its indie members) all sharing their windfalls with artists.
The bigger point is that those windfalls were voluntary: while there was a degree of pressure in the media, sharing the windfall was not mandated in artists’ contracts, which is what West is calling for.
One quirk of his campaign: it’s bringing him into the same territory as Taylor Swift. The pair’s past fallouts are well known, but besides publicly slamming the situation that leaves her masters out of her control, Swift also claimed in 2018 that her new deal with UMG included a stipulation that “any sale of their Spotify shares result in a distribution of money to their artists, non-recoupable”.
What we’re getting at is this: slowly, but surely, major established artists are evolving into artist-rights activists, and stressing their determination to use their clout not just for their own deals, but for the system itself. And there’s evidence that they can have an impact.
“I will help set precedents, I will help develop better royalty portals and deal shapes. I will design how this flows with them,” said West. “I will work to rip apart the structure we are attached to that pays people for music. We cannot have designed streaming, but not designed a new method for payment and ownership around it where we all benefit.”
Image by Jason Persse (CC BY-SA 2.0)