The 21st Century Music Industry: Artists and their Rights

Picture of By Sofia Neumayer Toimil

By Sofia Neumayer Toimil

In recent years, we have seen the rise of many new small artists who have taken over the charts. Musicians such as Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion, and Doja Cat have begun dominating the Gen-Z music scene, due greatly to their viral songs reaching social media platforms. Music labels scramble to offer them the best record deals, wanting to represent such trending artists. However, this can often lead to young creatives being taken advantage of by money-hungry record labels handing them faulty deals that the artists can’t fully understand. 

The Rise of Small Artists

Small artists wanting to make music for a living have a hard time making this their career, seeing as massive music streaming companies such as Apple Music and Spotify pay musicians a minuscule amount for their work. Although social media offers a new platform from which artists can promote their music and connect with listeners, there is a lot of luck involved with a song going viral online. There is a very large pool of small musicians all trying to find fame through a viral song, and it shouldn’t be a matter of luck that small artists have to make money from their music but rather, streaming platforms should properly compensate the musician for their work.

Streaming Platforms and Small Artists

Spotify currently pays 0,0036 Euros per stream, whereas Apple Music pays 0,004 Euros; however, the artist themselves only get 13% of this streaming sum, namely 0,000081 Euros. For companies with a worth of $67 billion and $20 billion respectively, it cannot be justified that a small musician only makes this much for their music.

When Apple Music launched in 2015, Taylor Swift, one of the most successful artists of the 21st century, published an open letter stating that she would be withholding her music from the new platform. Her reasoning for this was that Apple Music was offering a 3-month free trial to new users, which meant that in this period, musicians, producers, and writers were not going to get paid.

She continued arguing that small artists depended on this money to live and that they did not have the voice in the industry to make an impact on this issue. “We don’t ask for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation”, Swift asserted. This letter received massive media coverage and eventually, Apple Music changed their regulations and now pays artists in the free trial period as well, although only a minimal 0,000081 Euros per stream.

A Limit to Creativity

Another frequent issue in the music industry is record labels offering artists strict, restrictive deals that limit their creative freedom and independence. Prince for example, who is regarded as one of the greatest musicians of his generation, had a long feud with his record label.

Prince had wished to release music as frequently as he wanted and sought the creative freedom to put out an album with 3 songs or 70 songs. However, his contract strictly stated how and when the albums were to be released, and although he received a large check for the albums in advance, the constraints to his creativity stifled him.

Small artists, on the other hand, often have to live with strict conditions and small pay, which was what happened to the post-punk band Public Image Limited in the 1980s. They had signed to Virgin Records and went on to release many popular hit singles, yet after 10 years they still owed the label money. This meant that the band was legally not allowed to release any money until they paid the label back, which they only managed to do after 2 decades when John Lydon, the singer, got paid for a British Butter advert. Reasons like this are why Prince stated: “Record contracts are just like — I’m gonna say the word – slavery”, concluding that he would not advise young artists to sign to a record label.

The Artist’s Right to Their Music 

Another thing that can come out of faulty record deals is the unfortunate situation of an artist not owning the original masters, the official original recording of a song, sound, or performance, of their music. This is precisely what happened to musical icon Prince, The Beatles and in recent years, Taylor Swift.

Taylor Swift was a child when the music label contract was signed and is now suffering the consequences of said faulty contract.

In 2006, when Swift was only 16, she signed to Big Machine records after having been in talks with the label since she was 14. 10 years later in 2019, all the rights to a decade of discography, her entire catalog were sold without her knowledge. She now has no rights over any of her music and isn’t even allowed to perform her music or use it in any commercial form without the consent of the new owners. Taylor Swift was a child when the music label contract was signed and is now suffering the consequences of said faulty contract. She is now working on re-recording all her music in order to gain back the rights to her masters.

The Future of the Music Industry

It is evident that there is a lot that needs to be changed in the music industry in order for small and large musicians alike to benefit equally and be able to make a living from their art.

One platform aiming to revolutionize the music industry is Tidal, which is owned in part by rapper Jay-Z. He claims that this platform pays artists based on the number of listeners and not based on how many people paid for the platform and who had the highest royalty percentage.

Tidal is choosing to change the music landscape instead of just competing with other platforms such as Spotify, seeing as they believe innovation is necessary in order to be able to pay the team and artist that makes the music. Jay-Z says he launched the service to “show support for artists who are trying to own things for themselves”. Prince himself was also an endorser of Tidal and chose to exclusively release some of his albums on the streaming service.

All in all, there are still deep-rooted changes that need to be made in the music industry to shift the focus back from the money-making needs of music labels to the art the musician creates. Musicians, writers, and producers need to have their rights looked after more so that they can own their music’s masters and continue to have the freedom to make the music they want to, which is ultimately what fans and music lovers are drawn to.


Cover by: Wendy Wei

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