Thanks to Taylor Swift, the world is talking about recorded music “masters” – and the perils facing artists who give them away to record companies. If you’re not up to speed, Swift has been left in a situation where the recorded music rights to her first six albums are owned by her ex-label, Nashville-based Big Machine. That label now looks set to sell these copyrights to a company led by Justin Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun – whom Swift just publicly identified as a personal adversary.
The fact this saga is being played out in the glare of social media – in Swift’s case, via her Tumblr page – gives it a modern, real-time-soap-opera feel. But in truth, it’s a two-part story as old as the record industry itself: Part One – young artist signs to label, agreeing to hand over ownership of their copyrights in exchange for an advance check, studio time, and a promise of big bucks marketing; Part Two – young artist grows up, having seen their records become really successful, and rues the fact they can’t control their destiny.
These days, the sort of deal that the then-15-year-old Swift signed with Big Machine in 2006 is becoming increasingly uncommon. As she explained to her fans on Tumblr, Swift handed over rights to her music to Big Machine “in perpetuity… that means forever.”
Today, thanks to the explosion of streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music, plus the direct-to-fan marketing power of platforms like Instagram and Facebook, the leverage in the artist/label relationship has dramatically shifted. As a result, labels are signing artists later in their career, and typically only tying new acts down to a limited licensing pact – meaning that the ownership of masters will revert to the artist after, say, a decade has passed.
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So why do artists, empowered by streaming and social media, still sign to record companies at all? Quite simply, because labels remain their best bet for glory. The current Rolling Stone Artists 500 chart does the legwork for us here: A quick glance down the Top 10 acts at the time of writing shows that all of them are signed to a major record company – Chance The Rapper excluded.
And, appropriately, it’s with Chance that the next chapter in the long, bumpy journey of artists holding on to their rights, and still succeeding at a blockbuster level, begins.
In May 2016, Chicago-born Chance The Rapper released his seminal mixtape, Coloring Book, as an exclusive on Apple Music; other streaming services had to wait two weeks to get hold of the record. In addition to marketing support, Chance received $500,000 from Apple. This money effectively acted like a traditional record company advance (the sort which beguiled Taylor Swift all those years before), but enabled Chance to avoid signing any kind of label deal. Apple got its exclusivity window, while the artist kept his rights and his independence – and made serious bank. For the first time, the long-held suspicion that a major tech player like Apple would directly disrupt the traditional fiefdom of the major record companies was becoming a reality.
Three months later, Apple upped the stakes. In what was reported to be a multi-million dollar deal, the firm inked a partnership with Frank Ocean, who pulled off one of the all-time great music industry heists. Ocean released his esoteric “visual” album, Endless, as an Apple Music exclusive on August 19, 2016. As soon as Endless hit the digital retailer, Ocean’s contract with his record label, Def Jam/Universal Music Group, was fulfilled. The 21-track Endless was a little odd, and a little bewildering, but so is Frank Ocean, so no-one seemed too concerned. That is, until a day later (August 20, 2016), when Ocean released what was clearly his “real” next studio album, Blonde, as a fully independent artist – once again as an Apple Music exclusive.
It seemed as though Ocean, colluding with Apple (and deploying the firm’s money) had pulled a fast one on Universal. Within a week, UMG boss Sir Lucian Grainge sent a memo to all of his company’s label leaders, outright banning them from striking exclusive-window deals with Apple Music and other market players. The rest of the industry soon fell in line with this policy, and the Apple Music-exclusive release has been dead in the water ever since… until now.
Over in France, rap duo PNL (“Peace N’ Loves”) are gaining an extraordinary amount of heat – in an extraordinarily hip-hop-obsessed marketplace. French MCs took the number one spot on the national French singles chart every week in the first six months of this year, with the minor exception of a fortnight of chart-topping from Lil Nas X.
The brothers behind PNL, N.O.S and Ademo (aka Tarik and Nabil Andrieu), shot to number one on the French album charts in April with Deux Frères (Two Brothers), which racked up 113,214 sales equivalents in its first seven days. Considering France’s national population is nearly five times smaller than that of the United States (67 million vs. 327 million), this week-one sales figure was analogous to shifting 552,000 albums Stateside. The biggest week-one for an album in the U.S. this year so far? Happiness Begins by the Jonas Brothers… with 414,000 equivalent sales. PNL’s prior album, 2016’s independently-released Dans la Legende, is now Diamond-certified in the country; like Deux Frères, it hit Number One in France, Belgium and Switzerland.
PNL, then, are massive in Europe – but they’re massive without compromising a shred of their street kudos. The Algerian-French brothers were recently, astutely described by Apple Music/Beats 1’s Zane Lowe as melding modern U.S. hip-hop production sonics with “that struggling sound of a community [which is] burdened with unemployment, austerity measures, drugs, gangs, racism, and a whole host of other social issues”.
This was an accurate portrayal: It’s been widely reported that the PNL brothers, who grew up on the Tarteréts housing project in Corbeil-Essonnes, just south of Paris, funded their early recordings using drug money. Their 2015 breakthrough single, “Le Monde ou Rien” (“The World or Nothing”), became a protest anthem for anti-austerity activists in France, and has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube. What’s more, PNL have remained completely independent throughout, with zero record label involvement in their affairs – despite, say my sources, millions of dollars being laid down by major record companies in bids to sign them.
Well, Apple just signed them. The company has inked a wide-ranging partnership with PNL which will see co-branded videos and promotions taking place in the months ahead, plus – it’s anticipated – special joint events. This new relationship officially commenced on Friday (June 28), with PNL re-releasing their Deux Frères album with four brand new tracks – all exclusively available on Apple Music in their first week. These tracks – “Commes Pas Deux”, “Ryuk”, “Bang” and “Sibérie” – quickly claimed the Top 4 spots on Apple Music’s chart in France. The prior Sunday night (June 23), Apple Music teamed with Virgil Abloh – Men’s Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton – to throw a party for PNL at the swanky Hotel Sinner in La Marais, Paris. It welcomed around 400 young fans, with another 200 waiting outside.
Sources close to the PNL deal tell me that further Apple Music exclusives with the artist have been secured for the future, and that Apple is taking great pride in helping PNL maintain their fully independent status.
This was certainly apparent in an Instagram story this week from Apple Music’s Global Creative Director, Larry Jackson – the exec who previously inked the Chance and Frank Ocean deals for Apple, in addition to other partnerships with the likes of Drake, DJ Khaled, Future and Travis Scott. Posting on Wednesday (July 3), Jackson said: “A huge congrats to my French brothers – the biggest and most influential duo out there – PNL, for breaking streaming records again in Europe this week. This time we proudly did it together. These guys bravely turned down countless offers from every company in business to remain fiercely independent, and also stay in control of their own masters.”
He added: “Through an amazing bond, a mutual trust and a one-on-one relationship we’ve forged over time, [PNL] decided to believe in a fellow who speaks very little French, and a company like Apple that serves as a true patron of the arts, to partner with on the distribution of their latest release. They never do interviews and are rarely seen. Here’s to the most important voices in France (and across Europe) at the moment. May the reign continue, gentlemen!”
That line, about Apple’s desire to establish itself as a “true patron of the arts” might just bring a couple of beads of sweat back to the brows of major record company bosses. And it’s a philosophy that goes right up the food chain in Cupertino. Eddy Cue, SVP of Services at Apple, specifically referenced the PNL partnership when speaking to the French media last week, while revealing that Apple Music had surpassed the 60 million global subscriber milestone.
Speaking to French Grazia (translated), he said: “We want to go in this direction [of the PNL deal] with artists, creating special relationships with those with whom we have an affinity. This doesn’t mean we want to do without record labels – they remain very useful. But artists today have much more power – they can decide how they want to work which, from our point of view, is great.”
Tim Ingham is the founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, which has serviced the global industry with news, analysis and jobs since 2015. He writes a weekly column for “Rolling Stone.”