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Deep Asymmetries Of Power: How The Recording Industry Spent Decades Denying Fair Payment To Black Artists

Mary Wells in 1970
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Deep Asymmetries Of Power: How The Recording Industry Spent Decades Denying Fair Payment To Black Artists

Scholars Matt Stahl and Olufunmilayo Arewa outline the record industry's opaque accounting practices, which demonstrate how artists in the '50s and '60s were systematically denied record royalties

GRAMMYs/Oct 19, 2020 - 10:26 pm

Singer Mary Wells was one of Motown's most successful early stars; her massive 1964 hit "My Guy" smashed through segregated genre lines, hitting number 1 not just on the R&B charts, but on the Billboard Hot 100 as well. But despite selling enormous numbers of records, Wells died in poverty at age 49 in 1992. She had no medical insurance, and when she contracted cancer, she couldn't pay her rent and lost her home, as well as her car. Stars like Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross and Rod Stewart donated tens of thousands of dollars to pay for her medical treatments.

Wells was grateful, but also understandably bitter. "It just shouldn't be where I have to hold my hand out and say I need help," she said. "I had hit records. I made a lot of money for people. I don't think anybody gets what they want or deserve, because life isn't like that. But they shouldn't be thrown on the street."

Wells believed the record industry had ripped her off. And research by scholars Matt Stahl of the University of Western Ontario and Olufunmilayo Arewa of Temple Law back her up. Stahl and Arewa have been examining the record industry's Byzantine accounting practices. Their work, discussed in a paper released last November, indicates that artists in the '50s and '60s were systematically denied record royalties. Today, the practices which robbed Mary Wells and other singers of her era persist. Record company accounting practices remain opaque, and there's good reason to believe that performers continue to be underpaid even when they make "a lot of money for people."

"I think what's really lacking is systems of accountability," Arewa told GRAMMY.com in a Zoom call with Stahl. "And the question is, how do you actually have accountability when you have such deep asymmetries of power between the recording companies and the artists, and also deep assymmetries of information, between the recording companies and the artists signing the contract? Generally, the recording companies know a lot more than the people signing. And when you combine that with no accountability, I think you end up with a system that's not very favorable to artists."

The recording industry's monopoly on information was important in the '50s and '60s, Stahl and Arewa explain, because artist compensation was dependent on royalties, which the record companies were supposed to track. Even contributions to health and retirement funds made through the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) were calculated based on income. This worked pretty well for television performers covered by the organization, since they had regular incomes and wages. But recording artists had more sporadic earnings, and AFTRA had little interest in making sure those were reported accurately before the 1990s.

Typically, artists received some advance money to pay for wages and other expenses accrued while making a record. Royalties are counted from moment of first sale; in the '50s and '60s artists typically received a paltry 3-5% of retail. These royalties are first applied to the expense balance. Only after these initial expenses are paid back do artists start to receive royalty checks.

Record companies then have a huge incentive to understate royalties, and numerous ways to do so. They can claim that artist expenses were high, or charge them for dubious expenses, or not report domestic or foreign sales. Howell Begle, the late Washington lawyer who regularly advocated on behalf of underpaid black R&B stars of the '50s and ’60s, also found that record companies would charge artists for expenses not allowed for in contracts, such as the costs of remastering old recordings for re-release on CD. Because of such accounting methods, many high-profile artists ended up owing their record companies exorbitant sums. Arewa and Stahl note in their article that in 1986 Muddy Waters owed Chess $56,000; Carla Thomas owed Stax some $80,000.

Mary Wells poses with The Beatles in 1965 
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Record executives claimed that these huge sums were the result of artist profligacy; label owners supposedly advanced Waters, Thomas and others thousands for drinking, partying and high-living. Artists had little power to contest such racist, insulting narratives, because they had no access to company records.

Contracts did not provide for regular audits. Artists could demand audits, but they were required to pay for them themselves—and because record companies had cheated them for years, they often, like Mary Wells, lacked the money for an extended legal battle. Companies paid no penalties for withholding royalties, either, and even if an audit revealed money owed, artists wouldn't necessarily be able to get it, especially in the Jim Crow era. "I'm not sure an African American person could really actually go to court or even find a lawyer to take the case [in the '50s or '60s]," Arewa told me. "And even if he went to court, how would a jury look at this African-American person who's making allegations or accusations against a white person?"

Despite the record company's many advantages, musicians have tried to hold them accountable. The most successful campaign in this regard was undertaken by the great R&B singer Ruth Brown. As Stahl discusses in an article in The Queen Mary Journal of Intellectual Property, Brown and Begle launched what was essentially a public relations program to shame her label, Atlantic, into providing restitution for artists.

Brown was experiencing a career renaissance, and she used her elevated profile to raise awareness of unjust treatment in the music industry. Meanwhile, Begle pushed for greater access to Atlantic accounts. After years of pro bono work, he managed to find a smoking gun memo which admitted that Atlantic had not even kept track of royalties for many of its artists from 1960 to 1971. This meant that all their accounting statements after that time were fraudulent.

Atlantic at the time was engaged in a high-profile 40th anniversary celebration and trying to cement its status as a cultural treasure. Faced with a public relations disaster and possible criminal charges, the company in 1988 agreed to fund the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which would make cash grants to classic artists.

That seems like a happy ending. But unfortunately, Stahl told GRAMMY.com, "Shortly after they were founded, it seems like they turned their attention to institutionalizing rather than handing the money out. Within a few years, it was clear that its main priorities were a plush office, a few salaries and annual awards ceremony." Begle resigned from the Foundation's board, as did rock critic Dave Marsh, who said angrily in 2002 that the Foundation's "main mission appears to be covering up the felonies committed against veteran soul/R&B artists."

Stahl and Arewa believe these injustices still persist. Audits remain sporadic and difficult, and record company accounting, past and present, continues to be opaque. The industry has responded to Black Lives Matter protests by blacking out websites to reflect on social justice issues. Spotify and Sony offered to match employee donations, and Warner Music Company announced it would donate several hundred million to a foundation to support antiracist causes. 

But Stahl and Arewa are skeptical. "If someone proposed $200 million dollars [in charitable contribution]," Stahl says, "you can figure what tiny fraction of what is actually contemplated that might be." Arewa points out that actress Hilary Swank just had to sue AFTRA for denying her coverage for coverage of ovarian cysts. If well-known actors aren't receiving good medical coverage from AFTRA, it doesn't bode well for less high-profile performers. 

"It struck me when Tidal was launched," Arewa says, "that there were various very, very successful artists, they were all on stage complaining, and many of them are multimillionaires, if not billionaires complaining about their royalties and their payments from the recording industry. And they aren't really the artists with the biggest problems. Not to say they don't have problems, but they are doing very well, even despite the problems. Some people are literally dying in poverty because they don't get royalties. We know cases of those. So the question is, how do you fix the system so it has better outcomes for everyone?"

Reform is too late for Mary Wells, and for Ruth Brown, who died in 2006. But If record companies really wanted to make up for past misdeeds, and prevent future ones, Stahl and Arewa say, they could start by opening up their accounts to researchers, accountants and artists. Regular independent audits, paid for by the record companies themselves, would be a huge step towards figuring out what older artists are owed, and what new artists should be guaranteed going forward. What's needed isn't charity, but transparency and the accountability that comes with it. As Wells said, nobody gets what they want or deserve. But musicians who brought joy to so many, and so much money to labels, should at least get what they're owed.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

Joan as Police Woman

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Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors

GRAMMYs/Apr 7, 2020 - 07:21 pm

As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.

Thursday, April 2

[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.

[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it. 

Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy. 

[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always. 

[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment. 

I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.

[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.

[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh. 

Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot. 

[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).

[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music. 

[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night. 

If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website

Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage

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Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"

How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians

GRAMMYs/Oct 24, 2019 - 01:27 am

The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.

To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."

"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"

According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.

"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."

The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.

"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."

On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate

"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."

For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.

"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."

The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.

Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."

In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.

"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Ice-T In 1993

Photo by David Corio/Redferns

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Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album

Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album

GRAMMYs/Mar 10, 2020 - 10:06 pm

In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.

It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause. 

While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "Fk the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.

Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.

Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.

Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.  

That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter [2014] was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust [2017] was our Ride The Lightningand Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."

He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.

Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too fking late."

His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."