Caleb Hearn and Jason Messer used to be inseparable. “We did everything together,” says Hearn, a 20-year-old singer from King, North Carolina. But on February 18th, 2017, when Messer asked his friend to go hiking in nearby Hanging Rock State Park, Hearn had to bow out — he had a shift at the local Chick-fil-A. While hiking, Messer slipped, fell at least 40 feet, and later died from his injuries.
“It was a pretty traumatic event that I wasn’t able to process,” Hearn says. “I was numb to everything.” He struggled to talk about the incident. “I didn’t know how to deal with that kind of loss, so I bottled up all of my emotions for three years,” Hearn said in a recent TikTok video.
But the singer had a breakthrough at the end of November, finding a piano instrumental on the internet and composing a plaintive gut punch titled “Always Be.” “It felt like I was finally able to, not get over [the death] because I’m never going to get over it, but express how I was feeling,” Hearn explains. When the singer released “Always Be” on December 4th, strangers started messaging him, sharing their own experiences with loss.
Members of the music industry also noticed the enthusiastic response to “Always Be” and started reaching out. One set of messages came from Justin Goldman, who co-runs the label, management, and publishing company ‘94 Sounds. “Love the new track,” Goldman wrote to Hearn on December 8th, according to screenshots of messages obtained by Rolling Stone. He offered to fly the singer to New York, and later wrote that he can help “Always Be” “explode to the moon.”
But the conversation’s tenor began to change when Goldman learned Hearn had a manager — he told the singer that he’d reached out “mainly about management stuff.” Things worsened when Hearn discovered Goldman had purchased the beat underpinning “Always Be” without the singer’s knowledge.
Goldman tried to offer Hearn reassurances after the buyout. “Would love to work with you on it,” he wrote. “Not trying to do something bad or take down the song I want to help you with it. I do this with beats and songs all the time.” But Hearn became increasingly distressed about losing control over “Always Be.”
After several days of failed negotiations, Hearn messaged Goldman. “Everytime I look at [the song] I think of you,” the singer wrote. “Someone who took the rights to a song that meant everything to me and my friend.” Nearly two weeks after first talking to Goldman, Hearn posted a video on TikTok. “I won’t say names, but this guy completely took advantage of me and the song,” the singer alleged in the somber clip. Hearn announced that he was releasing another version of “Always Be” built around a different beat and urged TikTok users to stream the new rendition.
The singer posted the TikTok video on a Monday afternoon; by Tuesday evening, it had zoomed past 10 million views. The clip hints at the messy dynamics and murky ethics behind the race to capture the profit from viral songs. Hearn tells Rolling Stone, “An artist blowing up on TikTok is the most vulnerable person ever.” Goldman counters that he tried to negotiate with the singer, claiming that Hearn threatened to “expose” him on TikTok if he didn’t agree to sell the beat back. Goldman also says that he’s been subject to death threats on the internet as a result of Hearn’s TikTok video.
In the past two years, at least three different artists have had breakthrough moments, only to find out that ’94 Sounds had subsequently purchased the beats anchoring their songs. Though Goldman says that “every single time I buy out or publish a beat, it’s so that I can work with an artist” and “push the song,” the buyouts discussed in this article have all devolved into accusations on social media or conflict in court. Contentious encounters like these remain a little-discussed, but increasingly common, aspect of the modern music business.
’94 Sounds isn’t the only player in the music industry employing the buyout tactic, and some see this approach as shrewd and even necessary in a business increasingly obsessed with identifying viral singles and transforming them into commercial juggernauts. But others frown on the buyout maneuver, concerned that it targets new artists with little knowledge of the music industry, much less the intricacies of copyright law.
Goldman acknowledges that some managers and artists have been “taken aback” when the beats anchoring their songs have been bought out. But, he adds, “it’s not my fault that there is an inexperienced manager or the team of the artist doesn’t feel like [a beat buyout] is just.”
Goldman likens the debates around the ethics of buyouts to conversations about the morality of other music-industry practices, like long-term record deals. “I believe [beat buyouts] are unethical when you’re not trying to work with the artist and you’re holding someone hostage,” Goldman continues. “I didn’t do that stuff.”
Companies like Goldman’s can use this buyout maneuver because so much modern music is recorded by artists who obtain beats online and never set foot in the same studio as their collaborators. Producers — both popular and unknown — crank out instrumentals and upload them to YouTube or websites like BeatStars, a musical clearinghouse featuring more than 5 million beats. Many vocalists — especially early in their careers — download these instrumentals and turn them into full songs. (It’s how Lil Nas X created his smash “Old Town Road.”)
“An artist blowing up on TikTok is the most vulnerable person ever” -Caleb Hearn
Amateur artists often don’t purchase full rights to a beat when they first create a song. Some use an instrumental without any authorization. Others pay a modest fee to license — the music industry prefers the term “lease” — an instrumental for a specific period of time and/or until the song built around that piece of music passes a specific number of streams or downloads.
These license agreements are typically non-exclusive, so it’s possible for the producer to make more money by leasing the same instrumental to multiple artists simultaneously. BeatStars CEO Abe Batshon says prices range from as low as $20 up to $4,000. (After releasing the original “Always Be” on December 4th, Hearn paid $19.95 on December 7th to license the instrumental non-exclusively for 10 years or up to 500,000 streams, according to the license agreement obtained by Rolling Stone.)
Lawyers say these agreements are less comprehensive than the ironclad producer contracts favored by major labels. In the vast majority of cases, songs that start on BeatStars don’t become commercially successful, so artists and producers are probably unaware of the contracts’ imperfections.
“It’s not my fault that there is an inexperienced manager or the team of the artist doesn’t feel like [a beat buyout] is just” -Justin Goldman
But when a new artist’s song resonates widely on TikTok or another streaming service, that song and the underlying instrumental gain immense value. Labels and managers often track singles with commercial momentum and swoop in to sign the vocalist behind the tune. Another way to get a piece of a fast-moving single is to use the method employed by Goldman, among others: Find the producer of the song, who may not even be aware that their work is now part of a hit, and make a deal to buy the beat.
When this takes place, the artist who originally licensed that beat is suddenly saddled with a new negotiating partner. That partner, in addition to being entitled to songwriting income, now enjoys leverage over the tune itself. They could, for example, charge an exorbitant rate to extend the license, or depending on the terms of the agreement, revoke it altogether.
This situation represents a formidable challenge for new artists unaware of the need to secure their music. If they aren’t well-versed on music-industry practices before their song goes viral, it may be too late for a crash course after a sudden surge in popularity. “Nowadays, songs can go viral and become extremely valuable overnight,” says Roy LaManna, whose music-tech company Vydia has distributed multiple TikTok hits. “While this may be an artist’s dream, they need to make sure they obtain all the proper licenses prior to release or it could quickly turn into a nightmare.”
Goldman says that he doesn’t buy beats “to hold up situations or make artists feel that I don’t want to work with them.” “My first instinct as a manager, label person, or publisher is to always work with the artist,” he continues. If that doesn’t happen, he aims “to get in with the producer” through a publishing agreement or a beat buyout. Either way, Goldman says he just wants to “monetize” what he’s paid for.
Goldman was raised in the music industry: His grandfather, Elliot, rose to president of BMG Music, and his father, Ben, was a longtime A&R executive at Epic Records and Columbia Records. The younger Goldman, who has a nose for viral songs, interned at the record label 300 Entertainment and attended Syracuse’s Bandier Program, which trains students for careers in the music industry. In 2018, at the age of 20, he partnered with Universal Music’s Caroline on the JustGold label, which operates alongside ’94 Sounds.
In December, a few days after Hearn and Goldman first exchanged texts, the singer learned that ’94 Sounds now owned the “Always Be” instrumental. Responding to a question from Hearn, Goldman confirmed he bought out the beat. “I do it with a bunch of beats and songs that I like,” he wrote. “Big part of my biz.”
One part of Goldman’s “biz” is buying “beats and songs”; one of his tactics, according to court documents, is legal action: After buying out the instrumentals to two other viral hits, ’94 Sounds sued rappers Lil Xxel and Jaah SLT for using beats they’d previously licensed.
The two artists are currently in a legal fight with ’94 Sounds over the rights to the instrumentals that form the basis of their most popular singles. According to court documents, Lil Xxel’s manager paid to license the beat that later became the song “LMK,” while Jaah SLT leased the instrumental that underpinned his single “Tuff.” ’94 Sounds subsequently purchased both instrumentals. In two separate lawsuits filed last year, the company accused Lil Xxel and Jaah SLT of copyright infringement.
Goldman is adamant that he did not want to sue, noting that once he has invested in a single, “I don’t have any incentive for the song not to do well.” Goldman says, for both Lil Xxel and Jaah SLT, there were “extensive, extensive attempts” to reach mutually agreeable terms around the use of the beat. He claims he was “forced” to file suit because “the artist and the label who signed them don’t want to do an agreement with me that I think is fair or they think is fair.” The complaints against Lil Xxel and Jaah SLT make no mention of any previous licenses that those artists had made with the producers.
Lawyers for the two rappers argue in court documents that ’94 Sounds cannot claim copyright infringement because the artists’ use of the music was previously authorized. Jaah SLT’s lawyers also allege that ’94 Sounds is a “copyright troll” hunting for “commercially successful recordings” and buying the beats “for the sole purpose of asserting baseless infringement claims.” Goldman insists his claims are strong, arguing that “the second I buy the exclusive or I buy out the beat from the producer … those non-exclusive licenses are invalid.” (A lawyer for both rappers declined to comment on the lawsuit.)
While cheap, easy licenses for millions of beats make platforms like BeatStars popular, the low cost and ease means those licenses have loopholes and limitations that music-industry insiders can leverage. Batshon, the BeatStars CEO, claims the scenarios described in this article are “very rare,” but adds that his platform has started offering legal aid to prevent anyone from “taking advantage of producers.”
Goldman also argues he’s fighting on behalf of producers: While “artists are getting signed for millions of dollars by labels, the producers who I stand in the shoes [of] when I buy out beats or publish songs … are getting screwed over.” Though when ’94 Sounds buys out all the rights to a beat, the original producer would not benefit financially from any of the song’s further success.
Hearn says he is trying to warn anyone who will listen about the music industry’s buyout practice via his TikTok video, which has now accumulated more than 20 million views. The clip “is not even about exposing” any particular individual, according to the singer — “it’s about protecting artists.”
“[Artists] need to make sure they obtain all the proper licenses prior to release or it could quickly turn into a nightmare,” says one music exec
Goldman doesn’t see it that way: He sent Hearn a message alleging that the TikTok video was “defamation.” “You’re extorting me,” Goldman wrote. (For his part, Hearn says, “I got a little ill-tempered at some point in this whole thing.”)
A lawyer for Goldman also sent Hearn a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that the singer take down the TikTok clip and post an apology in its place. “Your actions have caused serious damage to Mr. Goldman’s professional and personal reputation,” the letter added.
Goldman says he started receiving death threats after the video came out. “It really is disturbing that I’ve been used as a marketing ploy to promote this new song … when in reality I bought the beat because I thought the original song was going to do well,” Goldman adds. But, he notes, “this isn’t gonna hinder what I do.”
While Hearn has taken down the original version of “Always Be,” his TikTok video is still up. His reasoning is simple: “[Nobody has told] me what [Goldman] did was a good or moral thing to do.”