Recently DJBooth released an article that caused a lot of discussion in the music community. The article discussed how Atlantic Records, a major record label, has been calling albums “Mixtapes” in order to avoid paying producers fairly. Producers quickly chimed in saying Atlantic wasn’t the only label doing this.
Following DJBooth’s lead, Revolt quickly did a series of interviews with super producers Sonny Digital, DJ Mustard, J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, and London On Da Track to get more information on producers not getting paid.
For the record Noise Complaints believes that producers power the music industry and deserve recognition and monetary credit. While this news wasn’t surprising, as we had heard from producer we met over talk about their concerns about not being paid, it was disappointing. It motivated me to think of how producers could protect themselves, get not only the respect they deserve, but the treatment they deserve as well.
With that said, here are a few steps that producers can take to fight for their own behalf.
Get a Lawyer
Get a lawyer and have them involved early.
As you work with labels and artist in business, each side is trying to get the best deal. Put your lawyer to work and let them get you the best deal possible as they work on the contracts. The labels have no qualms of finding loopholes and having lawyers craft contracts that pay you a minimal amount. Doesn’t it make sense to have your lawyer fight back?
Before engaging with a lawyer, make sure that you’re ready.
Initially you’ll want to use them for specific tasks only such as negotiating deals for production on a project or placement of music. Do this to limit lawyer fees until you need their services regularly, which at that point you’ll need to have a retainer.
When deciding on a lawyer, remember that each one will be different. Young and hungry lawyers, looking to grow, might be willing to take an innovative approach to negotiate a unique deal that works for you. Find a lawyer that is willing to grow with you and charge you as you build your portfolio and earn more.
Take the time to find a lawyer in your community with a proven track record. Ask friends, family, or your network to find someone you’ll trust. Or you can leverage one of the resources below to find someone in your local city:
Volunteer Lawyer for the Arts: Do a quick Google search of your state and volunteer lawyers to find free legal services for anyone in the arts. This is a great place to start.
Music Connection: A magazine and online publication that publishes an annual guide of entertainment attorney’s broken down by state.
Avvo: Yelp for Lawyers. Identify a lawyer for your specific needs and see reviews, ratings and information on how they can help. A large majority of licensed attorneys in the U.S. are on there.
No More Free Beats
During the mixtape era it was common for producers to give away beats for free in order get their names and work out and solidify relationships.
The problem is that while you value the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making your music, other people tie value to money and giving away beats for free has created a problem where producers seem less valuable.
Now, regardless of whether it’s a mixtape or an album, your work is going to determine the payment structure at the outset. If you’re working with a major artist and think the song is a hit you might want to forgo upfront payment to ensure more money on the backend. If you work with a smaller artist and reduce your fee or give them the beat for free try to retain your publishing.
Always be ready to negotiate and if your fee or terms aren’t being met, then be prepared to walk away. It’s something we recommend in the negotiation section of book 3 in our Primer series and it’s something producer Benny Cassette recommends as well. At the end of the day, know your worth and be ready to fight for it. Regardless whether upfront or backend payment is your preference, go back to point one and get your lawyer involved.
At the end of the day, know your worth and be ready to fight for it. Regardless whether upfront or backend payment is your preference, go back to point one and get your lawyer involved.
Build Your Brand
Just like artists have to build their brands, producers are no different. We’ve briefly touched on this topic in the past, but the more people that recognize you and your work, the more leverage you have.
Additionally, building your brand opens up more opportunities to make money. Hip Hop producers are already doing this. Take a look at Metro Boomin, Calvin Harris, DJ Khaled, or Kaytranada, doing joint projects with artists, getting their names alongside top billing with an artist, and even putting out entire albums where they’re the star and the artists are the features.
Whether you want to step out into the limelight, become an artist/producer, or stay a bit behind the scenes there’s numerous ways to build your brand and get the credit you deserve. You may never get the same top billing as the artist singing or rapping over your beat, but you don’t want to be the forgotten element either.
If you’re confused about how to build your brand as a producer, it’s not drastically different than how an artist would. We’ve previously discussed steps artist can take to build their brands, but in short, your brand is the summation of your unique story. It’s your experiences, goals, vision, interests, and mission pulled together and displayed authentically to your audience to give them a reason to choose you and allow them to deeply connect with you.
When you were creating your music, there were feelings you wanted to express. There was something that drew you to music. You have goals and visions for how you want to move the sonic landscape. Share your stories, your vision, and your values with the world connecting that to your music and see who it resonates with.
Increase Your Value as a Producer
There’s a surplus of beatmakers, and in any market, economics tells us that when there’s a surplus of a product, the price for it will go down.
You can avoid this by working to make yourself, in economic terms, inelastic. An inelastic good or service is “one in which large changes in price produce only modest changes in the quantity demanded or supplied, if any at all.” Three factors influence elasticity of demand, availability of substitutes, necessity, and time.
Based on this, there are a couple things producers should do to increase their value and differentiate themselves.
One, make sure your beats are unique and something only you can produce, this allows you to differentiate yourself from substitutes in the market.
Currently a lot of producers are recreating similar trendy sounds, using the same sound packs, and riding waves of what’s popular. The best producers are creating new sounds. They’re studying other genres of music, taking risk, and exploring the world for new perspective, while still sharpening their skills and perfecting their craft. Some of the best producers are continuously recording the sounds of the world they experience in order to incorporate original sounds into tracks. When you’re the only producer with a uniquely original sound and feel, then you can charge a premium for it.
Another way that you can increase your value is to shift from beatmaker and get involved in the artist’s overall creative process.
Help them craft the best songs possible by pushing them to try new things on a track and rewrite lyrics and concepts. Consider yourself as a consultant and be a soundboard for ideas to help them raise the quality of the work they put out.
You’re looking to create synergy here where the artist feels that they’re better because they worked with you and you feel your work is stronger because of the artist. If the artist feels that you and your work brings the best out of them, not only will they willingly pay you, they’ll champion you to others, and it will help strengthen your brand, this addresses necessity.
When thinking of time and how it impacts price, you’re thinking of when you have peak demand and when you have off-peak demand. If you have a hit record, you’re at peak demand when you can charge your highest rates.
This one is the most difficult of the four steps, but would have the most impact for producers. A union would have more negotiating power with labels, ensuring producers get paid, and even penalizing labels and artists who are notorious for not paying producers.
The heart and soul of a labor union is collective bargaining. This is when unions use the power of their membership to apply pressure to a company to force a change.
As producers pay their union dues, the money can be used to fund a full team to support producers overall, such as lawyers, marketing professionals, advisors, development coaches and various other professionals to work with producers with the focus on helping them reaching their goals and ensuring that the industry treats them fairly.
Don’t think because there’s a team of potential industry outsiders or business professionals providing support that they’ll be the only ones who should set direction and call the shots.
Producers who are members of the union, would elect representatives to lead the charge in setting the vision on goals and initiatives, making sure their most relevant concerns are heard.
Unionizing isn’t new, especially in the entertainment industry where all major sports have unions for their players, actors have a union, and writers have a union. It makes sense for producers to take back their power and unionize.
Producer's not receiving pay isn’t a new problem, but it’s one that needs to be solved.
Labels aren’t going to fix it on their own. It’s up to producers to take the power back themselves and use their influence to shape the industry so it works for them as well. So producers, get your lawyers, know your value, builds your brands, shift from beat supplier to an essential part of full creative process, and band together to make sure everyone eats.