Back in October, Meek Mill tweeted something that perfectly captures the frustrations of being an artist in today’s music industry. Fresh off the release of his fifth studio album on the Billboard 200, dear pain, the multi-platinum rapper proclaimed, “I haven’t been paid by the music and I don’t know how much the labels make of me!!!!!” In a since-deleted thread, he then asked two seemingly simple questions: “How much have you spent on me as an artist? How much have you made me as an artist?
For anyone not in the music business, it might seem shocking that an artist of Meek’s stature should ask these questions. For those of us used to trying to get paid in this industry, this situation is all too familiar. Reading these tweets first made me laugh, then I got really sad. Then I got fired up – it doesn’t have to be like that.
As someone with over a decade of industry experience, including as an agent helping talent navigate the Wild West of building and monetizing online businesses, I cannot not to say that I was surprised. 20 years after Left Eye took us to school on VH1’s Behind the Music and how TLC found itself broke after the smash hit of crazysexycoolthe music industry is full of stories of wildly popular artists who never see a dollar after a label sends them their first cash advance – they’re faced with terrible deal terms, fees that don’t are not disclosed in advance and a lack of support for revenue streams in which a label does not directly participate.
Despite some headlines, I actually think the industry has become more artist-friendly over the past 5 years. This is partly because of pressure from growing independent alternatives, and partly because of a changing of the guard – new leaders taking the helm trying to do good with their artists in this progressive landscape. I believe in the value provided by labels. They can be essential for making early investments in talented artists without actual performance data or a team. What I fail to understand is how these labels can possibly continue to evolve and act in the best interest of their artists without better tools. It drives me crazy that in 2022 you can create a million dollar bidding war for a illustration of a listless monkeybut the artists who shape our culture can’t get the investment they need because the labels that serve them can’t provide timely data on their financial worth.
Knowing what I know about what goes on in label back offices, I couldn’t help but imagine the conversations Meek Mill’s tweet probably sparked behind closed doors: Meek’s label partners knew- were they even worth it, financially speaking? If they wanted to provide him with a full report of how much money they had spent on him and how much they were earning from his music, how long would that take? This type of information should be available to artists at any time, when they need it. And yet most labels struggle to pay twice a year, let alone provide clear and consistent information on what was spent and what it earned.
“Great art requires collaboration”
As more big-name artists use social media to hold their labels to account, companies are sharing data with musicians where they can. It’s tempting to say that the music industry has a problem with transparency, but I’d go further and say it has a problem with clarity: unless you’re an Excel wizard, a full data dump of spreadsheets from different departments will be a recipe for confusion more than anything else. We need a music industry where artists demand and expect full visibility into their finances – and it’s time someone stepped up and offered that solution.
Bringing clarity to this industry becomes an even more pressing concern when you consider that artists today act more like free agents. It’s increasingly common to see artists jump across multiple labels and distributors over the course of their career – and that’s before we factor in collaborations, live performances and licensing opportunities. For those responsible for sorting through this accounting nightmare, the situation becomes even more complicated: today’s artists can derive revenue from dozens of disparate sources at once, from multiple distributors and label partners aggregating royalties from hundreds of services worldwide, to TikTok and YouTube, to video games, fitness apps and emerging Web3 technologies.
Here’s a controversial statement: I don’t believe most artists want to be independent, at least not in the full sense of the word. I believe they want to be independent. Great art requires collaboration, and great artists need to work with teams that can help bring their vision to life, whether it’s internal management, label partners, or even a network of freelancers. .
Many artists and their managers want the ability to steer the ship, the freedom to chart their own course, the signals to make sure they’re heading in the right direction. At the same time, many more are willing to trade that control for the greater reach that working with a label can afford. What both groups want is clarity and leverage. Independence and autonomy have been confused in this industry, and I think Jon Tanners recently offered the best clarification between the two: “Autonomy is the ultimate goal, the capacity for self-determination,” he writes. “It’s not just about who owns and exploits the copyright, it’s about data ownership and platform control.”
The reason many artists prefer the independent route is that it’s the only way to be able to get performance and financial data without interference. Spotify for Artists has set a new standard for accessing performance data, and it’s time for financial data to catch up.
Other industries have done a better job of innovating
With apps like Square, a small business can automatically determine how much net income it actually earns in real time when you factor in the cost of inventory, rent, and staff. When I worked as an agent, I could see that technology was possible for the kind of up-to-date income and expense tracking that could give musicians a complete picture of their business, but no one was building tools that could be really useful for my clients. Half a decade later, it may still seem like the recording industry is trying to tackle the unique accounting challenges of 2022 using software designed in the early 2000s.
Imagine a world where an artist could upload a new single and, in the same week, access information about how much money they were making on different streaming platforms, in addition to the various expenses they had to recoup before they could see a return. Imagine if that artist could share those ideas with all those collaborators who helped bring that song to life — and immediately funnel a percentage of all revenue to a guest singer or producer once they’ve recovered. Imagine if a producer or songwriter could log into a dashboard and see how much revenue their songs are generating from various distribution partners.
Now imagine what they would do with that clarity. Would they be able to double down on marketing in territories that really made them money instead of making decisions based on vanity metrics like views and likes? If a producer could be sure they would get paid as soon as a song started airing, should an artist still charge them cash to get them to work with them? Or could this artist start working with collaborators he thought he could never afford?
When it comes to data, sharing is caring
Since the foundation Stem in 2015, we focused on providing musicians with the payment processing tools that allow them to take advantage of opportunities like this every day. Based on my conversations with people at all levels of the industry, being able to track income, expenses, and payments in one place – and giving artists visibility into exactly where every dollar is going – would certainly allow labels, managers and other industry players to make more strategic business decisions as well.
When a musician – or a songwriter, producer, or label – has visibility into their business, they gain the ability to make choices that serve them. It could be choosing to forgo an expensive recording session in Malibu that will take a year to pay for, or deciding on a label for their next release, and on what terms. Choosing the right partners should not come at the expense of visibility into your own finances. And when artists can easily decide to move elsewhere, it’s in a label’s best interest to keep up with the times. Financial clarity fosters a greater degree of accountability on all sides, and with greater accountability comes trust.
It’s 2022: why do labels just send out paper statements several times a year? You should have a dashboard that tells you exactly how much you’ve invested in an artist, and it should be easy for you to share that data and make payments. Artists are constantly looking at vanity stats about their listeners or fans on social media, and you wonder why they want to spend all their budget on a music video. Let’s give them the information they can actually use.
Milana Rabkin Lewis designed and built an artist-driven financial ecosystem for the music industry as co-founder and CEO of Stem. Recognized on Variety’s 2020 “Up Next” and Billboard’s 2020 “Indie Power Players” lists, Milana spearheads Stem’s mission to drive the long-term sustainable success of the industry as a whole, by paying out more than $200 million to 40,000 beneficiaries since 2015. This week, the company announcement a $20 million funding round from QED Investors and Block (formerly Square).