“Masters,” Music, and Money: Black Artists and the Record Industry

Black artists have contributed insurmountably to the music industry and popular culture alike. Though our presence and impact are undeniable, many artists have received the short end of the stick when it comes to the business side of the industry.  

Historically, record companies have lured artists into recording contracts with lofty advances (more appropriately termed “loans”) that must be fully recouped by the label before the artist receives any form of royalties. Yes – that means all the elaborate costumes, flashy cars, oversized jewelry, tour merchandise, and just about everything else you can imagine also come out of the artist’s budget.

In 1993, the late great Prince was notorious for writing the word “slave” on his cheek before he went on stage to perform. This public act was only one way Prince attempted to illuminate the tensions between artists and record companies; he also frequently deemed these arrangements “indentured servitude” and urged other artists not to sign “slave contracts.”

The legendary female group TLC is a prime example of a group that received shady treatment from their label. At the height of their career, TLC sold more than 10 million records, yet, each member only brought home roughly $35,000. Toni Braxton knows about the shade too; after selling 20 million records, she filed for bankruptcy due to overbearing expenses imposed by her record label.

Though the outlook remains bleak for aspiring artists looking to make it big in the record industry, we cannot overlook the success stories of those who learned from the mistakes of those who came before them. Most notably, we must not ignore the wave of independence rising within hip-hop and R&B.

It is arguable that Chance the Rapper is the face of this movement. As a 23 year old Grammy award-winning Black artist, Chance has reached acclaimed status all while retaining ownership of the masters and publishing rights for his records. This trend is becoming more and more prominent as black artists recognize the value of maintaining creative control of their art.

Audre Lorde said, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and that statement remains true for the music industry.  It is this reason that mogul Jay-Z invested $100 million of his own money to fund Tidal – a music and entertainment platform owned by artists instead of record execs or tech companies.

It is a complete paradigm shift away from the typical record label infrastructure allowing artists to have more control over their content and how it is experienced by fans. Tidal is a template for the type of ingenuity necessary to break free from the oppressive practices of the recording industry.