Summer Walker Is a Star. But She Signed a ‘Brutal’ Record Deal to Get There
When Summer Walker’s new album, Still Over It, comes out on Friday, commercial expectations will be high. The R&B singer erupted in 2019 with singles that channeled Nineties classics, especially the Top 20 hit “Playing Games” — which built on the unimpeachable foundation of Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” — and the platinum-certified “Come Thru,” a slick homage to Usher’s transcendently flirty “You Make Me Wanna.” The accompanying album, Over It, launched with the biggest first week of any female R&B singer since Beyoncé put out Lemonade.
But this success seems to have occurred while Walker was locked into a lopsided record deal, according to 2017 versions of the singer’s agreements with the label/ management company Love Renaissance (LVRN) and the label Interscope. One draft document obtained by Rolling Stone would demand that Walker give up a chunk of all her non-musical earnings, even in areas like acting. The recording deal she ultimately signed with LVRN offered the singer a low advance payment and a low royalty rate by current standards.
What’s more, at least according to one draft document, the singer would have been incentivized to be managed by LVRN even though the company may have had a conflict of interest serving as both management and label. The deal gave Walker little flexibility — she’s effectively an indentured servant for a series of albums — while LVRN faced little risk. “They’re getting a lot without having to give her much,” says Peter Scoolidge, a tech and entertainment lawyer and one of multiple attorneys who reviewed a draft of Walker’s deal.
For many artists, lopsided deals are the norm. “If you compare [the music] industry to other industries with creative products, you’ll notice that this is the industry where creators get paid the least,” says Jordan Bromley, partner and entertainment group leader at the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.
That’s partially why artists complaining about their labels and deals on social media is such a frequent occurrence. Meek Mill slammed his contract just last week. “I haven’t [been] paid from music, and I don’t know how much money labels make off me,” the rapper lamented in a since-deleted tweet.
ask the record label? how much have you spent on me as a artist? then you ask how much have you made off me as a artist? i’m about to make my record deal public by monday just to let the world see what these people on!!!
— Meek Mill (@MeekMill) October 25, 2021
But artists who are angry about their deals rarely share specifics about the source of their resentment — one notable exception being Kanye West tweeting his contract, page by page, in 2020. Low royalty rates? Giving up too much of your touring income? It’s hard to know, unless you’re at the label or on the artist’s team.
The absence of specifics isn’t necessarily surprising, since artists aren’t known for their legal expertise. In addition, artists may be embarrassed to share personal details that show that they — or more likely, their representatives — failed to obtain a more favorable deal. Perception is the gasoline that makes the music industry run; if your deal sucks, you’re a sucker.
But bad deals thrive in darkness.
LVRN cultivates an image as a safe haven compared to the more cutthroat corners of the music industry — even the name Love Renaissance suggests warm hugs and a new approach to what is often an exploitative business. “We always wanted to be progressive, next-level thinking,” one of the label’s founders told Billboard in 2019. Speaking to Rolling Stone last year, another company founder described LVRN as an entity with an interest in “protect[ing] our artists.”
But LVRN’s 2017 deal with Walker was hardly artist-friendly, according to more than half a dozen music managers and lawyers who reviewed a draft from when the contract was negotiated. Many managers raised objections about the deal terms, and several said they would not advise their own clients to agree to them. More than one described the draft deal as “brutal,” citing terms such as the advance payment and the royalty. (Rolling Stone subsequently obtained the final recording contract; the substance of that signed deal between LVRN and Walker was no better than the proposal in these respects.)
Most people who spoke for this article did so on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retribution in a vindictive industry. Their fear may be justified — after Rolling Stone reached out to LVRN for comment on this story, co-founder Tunde Balogan went on Twitter to accuse Rolling Stone of “conspir[ing] with crooks” and vowed “we are gonna fight this one.” (A rep for the label did not reply to a request for comment.)
Even as managers and attorneys expressed concern over a number of aspects of the deal, they were not surprised. They say arrangements like those in the draft they reviewed are typical of an industry that has historically under-compensated artists, and that, in 2017, deals of this sort were not unusual. It’s unclear if LVRN offered similar contracts to other acts, but the “renaissance” outlined in Walker’s deal is little different from what came before in the music business.
The draft outline of Walker’s deal with LVRN and Interscope stipulated that she would have received just $110,000 as an initial advance. (The number increases for subsequent albums.) The proposed royalty rate for her debut and its follow-up was 16% — meaning she would take home just 16 cents out of every dollar she generates once she has recouped her advance.
Managers say these numbers are low by contemporary standards. They drop lower (starting at 15%) in the final deal Walker ultimately signed, in which she also gave up her masters. (One progressive music company, Indify, does not even allow acts to sign royalty deals or give up ownership of their masters on their platform, believing that both practices are unfair to artists.)
Managers and lawyers alike were also troubled about the proposed “options” in the draft they reviewed, which would have committed Walker for however long it took LVRN to release up to four albums alongside a pair of pre-album “projects.” (The signed deal lasted even longer.) The option system means that if an artist is performing well, she is stuck abiding by terms that were settled on before she earned this increased leverage. This is a common feature of record deals, and several managers said it’s purely a boon for the label; the artist has virtually no protection, and if she doesn’t do well, the company can just drop her.
Walker “is locked into a low royalty structure for what appears to be a somewhat indeterminate amount of time,” says one lawyer
Walker “is locked into a low royalty structure for what appears to be a somewhat indeterminate amount of time,” Scoolidge says, referencing a pair of provisions that the singer ultimately agreed to. “She’s also locked into giving [the label] a substantial percentage of any other money she makes from product endorsements, acting, etc. — sources that are not music sales. On the other hand, as is typical in these deals, the record label isn’t really obligated to invest a ton of money into her career, brand image, or music.”
A rep for Walker and Interscope did not respond to requests for comment. In an Instagram post several days after this story’s publication, Walker did not dispute that she signed the 2017 contract. “What [this] article said is not my current record deal,” she wrote in a carefully worded statement. “Over the years my deal has changed many times.” While she shared no details about her current contract, she noted that she had “full support from LVRN.”
Many managers believe it is important for them to act in opposition to the record label: What’s good for an artist’s career and what’s good for the label may not be the same thing, and a manager’s job — in theory, if not in practice — is to advocate for the artist. That’s part of why several people who reviewed the draft of Walker’s deal were troubled with LVRN both managing the artist and serving as her label. They argue that a conflict of interest is inherent in the arrangement, even if it’s not unusual in the music industry.
While LVRN describes itself as an independent company, it’s what’s known as a joint venture, or JV, with Interscope. These companies are typically co-owned and partially funded by Interscope, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the label’s JV arrangements. What happens in a situation where Walker and LVRN or Interscope want different things? Can a company fight hard on an artist’s behalf against itself, or against the very force that helps bankroll its existence?
“Using the label or its subsidiary might not make for the best representation when it comes to deals with another company controlled by the same parent entity,” Scoolidge says.
Some of the financial proposals in the deal draft were contingent upon Walker being managed by LVRN. If the singer had a manager unaffiliated with the company, one draft indicated that she would give 5% of live earnings to Interscope as well as 15% of other non-musical income; if she was managed by LVRN, these numbers fell to 2.5% and 7.5% respectively.
The signed recording contract between Walker and LVRN dates from November 2017, and it looks like whoever had been advocating for the singer came up short during the negotiation process. In the final deal, Walker’s initial advance was $85,000; her initial royalty was 15%; the contract included four options.
Labels typically justify loading deals in their favor by noting that they have to shoulder all the risk involved with “developing” the act. That’s music industry-speak for transforming a nobody into the type of artist you hear while shopping for groceries. And it may be true in many situations that labels play an essential role in that transformation process.
But it’s undeniable that artists suffer as a result: This year already, the rapper YG said one record deal he signed “was fucked up for 10 years straight,” while the R&B singer SZA said she “hate[d]” her label (it was unclear which company she was referring to). Lil Uzi Vert publicly denounced one of his labels in 2018; Megan Thee Stallion has been fighting with one of her labels periodically since at least 2019.
Meek Mill has had 10 different solo singles certified platinum — he’s a star with a decade-long career. But he’s still pissed about his contract, and his broadside last week included the type of direct questions that most labels would rather not answer: “How much have you spent on me?” Mill wondered. “How much have you made off me?”