You Produced a Hit! Now Good Luck Getting Paid - Rolling Stone
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You Produced a Hit! Now Good Luck Getting Paid

The music industry moves fast, and it often leaves young producers broke — even when their songs rule the airwaves

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On July 16, 2018, Drake’s “In My Feelings” was crowned as the biggest hit in the country. To have a hand in a Drake single is a life-changing event for a producer, but that change can come slowly — according to one industry source, the several million dollars in writing income and royalties owed to TrapMoneyBenny and Blaqnmild, the producers of “In My Feelings,” did not start flowing until December 2019, nearly 18 months after the track set streaming records. 

This has little to do with Drake and a lot to do with the byzantine system that governs how producers are paid. Producers typically rely on multiple streams of income to make a living, and ensuring that each arrives promptly, if at all, requires navigating a logistical minefield. The reality is that “most producers are broke when they have hit records on the radio if it’s their first or second,” says Brandra Ringo, Senior Director of A&R at Warner/Chappell Music.

A loose movement of producers and lawyers are trying to reform this system. “A union type of thing is something producers have been speaking about for a long time,” says Hitmaka, who has produced hits for Big Sean and Meek Mill and discussed payment issues on social media. “If we take back our power, don’t allow producers to be treated this way, I think we can solve this issue in a very timely manner.” 

Separately, Jordan Bromley, a partner at Manatt Entertainment, has created a group of lawyers called “the Braintrust,” who are working to streamline the paperwork that can bog producers down in months-long negotiations over minutiae. 

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“What you’re seeing happening with the streaming economy is there are a lot more records being released, which means a lot more collaborations, which means a lot more agreements,” Bromley explains. “Frankly, the load of work for a lot of law firms is too heavy to handle. Producers’ clearances get put at the bottom of a growing pile.” He estimates that “there are hundreds of millions of dollars that should be in writer-producer bank accounts that are not.” 

In the 1990s, the music industry moved at a much more stately pace. When a producer entered the studio with an artist, lawyers say he or she was typically advanced half of a work fee at the start of the process and the other half when the master recording was turned in. Album rollouts ran for months, so publishing executives say that “splits” — some producers help to write the songs they work on, and songwriting income is divided up according to who penned what — were mostly ironed out before a release hit stores. And anyway, the producer had that “front-end” to help pay the bills until royalties from production and writing income arrived. 

In addition, there used to be a fairly limited number of producers, working mostly in major studios, making it easier to keep track of who did what and when. In a world where a teen can pirate a copy of a production program and make a beat at his dining room table that gets used by a rapper thousands of miles away, making sure that producers get appropriately compensated becomes necessarily more complicated.  

“We’ve had [producer] clients receive a platinum plaque before they received a fee,” says Mike Merriman, president of Parr3 LLC

And modern albums often come out suddenly, catching producers by surprise and leading to a chaotic post-release revenue-hunt. “Artists don’t want anyone knowing what’s happening, and the label doesn’t want to pay anyone who doesn’t make the album,” explains one publishing A&R. “So there goes the pay-you-just-to-get-in[-the-studio] model. Then you’re back chasing production fees, splits, paperwork.” 

“A lot of times the song will be out, and it’ll be months before a deal will be executed and you even get [what’s supposed to be] an up-front payment,” adds Mike Merriman, president of Parr3 LLC, a boutique business management firm. “We’ve had clients receive a platinum plaque before they received a fee. There are a lot of producers who live by that money.” 

Take Bizness Boi, who was getting regular major-label placements in 2015 but still didn’t have enough income to pay his rent. “I remember having an Eric Bellinger cut, and we was homeless,” he says. “We were just sleeping in cars. I had placements like, ‘Man, I’m really in a car.'” He used to find a quiet place to park near Universal Studios, where he could sleep mostly undisturbed. 

The process of getting paid becomes even more challenging for producers once the music is already released. “The artist is all over the country, and taking care of you may not be high on the priority list,” Hitmaka says. “There are so many things going on that you might get lost in the sauce.” This is especially true in the case of big stars. 

And if a major artist is involved, post-release negotiations over splits are also guaranteed to become more fraught, since everyone feels that lots of money is at stake. “If you negotiated those things before the song was released, you might not know who the artist is on the track, and people would be a lot more fair,” explains Jonas Jeberg, who has produced hits for Panic! At the Disco and Fifth Harmony. “But if a big artist releases a song, no one cares if they’re an asshole. They’re thinking, ‘It’s real money, I’m gonna fight for my percentages.'” While people fight, no one can get paid.

“I urge producers to not send any [beat] files until you get your money,” says Hitmaka

The other principal source of producer income comes from royalties, a percentage of the revenue generated from a song or album. But this money stream also has a catch: Producers don’t start to make royalties until the artist (or label) makes back the cost of recording (plus any advances). Since there is little transparency about those costs, “You don’t know what people’s budgets are,” Hitmaka says, and “there are only a couple of songs I’ve ever gotten royalties for.” Part of Merriman’s duty for his clients is to repeatedly ask the label if the recording costs have been recouped on specific songs.

Much of getting producers paid seems to involve this kind of nagging. Major labels now rely on third-party accounting systems, says Lucas Keller, president and founder of Milk & Honey management, which represents 55 producers and songwriters. “We all hate it,” he explains. “I once had an A&R admin person tell me they delete the invoice the first time it comes in. When someone follows up, they then put the invoice into the queue.” And creating an account to start to receive one type of income does not help a producer who wants to collect another, according to Merriman — that’s a different system.  

One of the reasons producers get so frustrated is that they don’t have any option other than to keep following up. That’s why Keller mostly refuses to send files unless his producers have received some sort of payment. But not everyone holds out. “There’s always gonna be some kid on SoundClick or at home making beats for the first time that will bend or fold to certain circumstances,” Hitmaka acknowledges. 

Once producers have handed over their beat files and are chasing payment, their last resort is to threaten legal action. But this can quickly sour a creative relationship, and the cost of legal fees may well be more than the amount of money a producer is chasing. “9 times out of 10 we’re not gonna take a song down,” says Matt Buser, an entertainment attorney who represents more than 30 producer clients.

Buser is trying to add language to producer deals that compels labels to pay on a certain timeline or return to the negotiating table. But labels are wary of including this provision. “They’re not sure that they could live up to that,” the lawyer says. 

So for now, a solution remains out of reach, leaving producers, especially young ones, stranded. A high volume of beats is essential to a fast-churning streaming economy, but the music industry neglects the people who provide these crucial building blocks. 

“If you went and bought a burger, you would have to pay right there and then,” Jeberg points out. “But this industry just doesn’t seem to change.”

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