Around 20 million TV viewers watched the six-part series, titled Surviving R. Kelly, within the first week of its January 3rd debut, according to the cable network. The film ruled headlines in global news outlets. It set social media utterly alight. And last Friday, reports began emerging that Sony, which owns R. Kelly’s record label RCA Records, has finally — after protests and pressure from music fans as well as members of the industry reached a sharp peak — come to an agreement with the singer to “part ways.” RCA’s website no longer includes Kelly on its artist roster, and while the record label has not returned any media requests for comment, one can assume his name won’t appear there again.
But what may seem like a major blow to Kelly’s career, or at least a significant victory in the popular movement to diminish his influence, is actually neither.
Though details of the split between Kelly and his label have not come to light, a record company letting go of an artist typically just means it won’t release music from them in the future — yet both parties will continue to profit off of all past music releases as long as those releases are in distribution. It is unusual for splits to result in a label releasing the rights of a back catalog, which would cut off its revenue stream from that catalog, sources say.
“I don’t know if anybody knows exactly what ‘dropping R. Kelly’ means. Presumably, Sony and RCA will continue to distribute his back catalog and the royalties will continue to flow as they were,” Lisa Alter, a top music attorney who specializes in copyright law, tells Rolling Stone. Moreover, the split may’ve actually resulted in an unanticipated extra payout for Kelly: “If the label had a contractual obligation to release additional material and didn’t want to do it, it might make a financial settlement with the artist, because otherwise they could be potentially sued by the artist for that loss of income,” Alter says. The exact worth of those unreleased albums is a number negotiated between the two parties, and high-profile artists are rumored to have commanded payouts in the millions in the past.
Kelly indeed had two albums left on his contract with RCA, according to Don Russell, an advisor and consultant for the artist, who tells Rolling Stone that several other record labels have said they’re “very interested” in working with Kelly. (Rolling Stone has not been able to independently verify these claims.) “He’s ready for the next level of life, anyway. It makes sense for them to shake hands and say, ‘This train has run its course and I wish you guys the best and let’s move on,'” Russell says.
Asked if Kelly was planning any legal action against RCA and Sony, Russell added, “Our goal is not to go after anybody because he wants everybody to be happy.”
When approached about its relationship with R. Kelly, Universal Music Publishing Group — which, like RCA, has been home to the singer’s catalog for decades on the publishing end — tells Rolling Stone that it also no longer represents the singer. “We actually made the decision some time ago, dating back to last spring,” says a spokesperson for UMPG. Its website shows no sign of creations by Kelly, other than a few joint works he released with Jay-Z in 2002 and 2004.
But to think that UMPG has really “severed ties” with the singer, as some reports have suggested over the weekend, would again be incorrect. While UMPG may not publicly represent Kelly on its songwriter roster, the company is still responsible for distributing his past work — which totals some 681 songs, according to the list registered with BMI, one of the major U.S. performing-rights organization that collects licensing fees for songwriters. UMPG, which has not responded to request for comment on the matter, acquired Kelly’s catalog in 2007 when its parent Universal Music Group took over Zomba, the company that previously controlled the singer’s copyrights.
“Apparently, UMPG has simply dropped R. Kelly insofar as his new, yet-to-be-created music is concerned. That is significantly different than the characterization of the relationship in the recent press,” Alter says. “Since UMPG continues to own R. Kelly’s catalog of existing compositions, it will presumably continue to publish those compositions, profit from the exploitation of the works and pay R. Kelly royalties pursuant to the underlying agreement.”
In a nutshell: Regardless of either major music company’s recent PR move, R. Kelly is likely making exactly as much money as he was before — if not a lot more. In the era of physical or digital music purchases, a record label’s or publisher’s decision to not extend their relationship with an artist may’ve caused a significant setback for them, because artists drew their money from the continued production of songs. But in the streaming age, it’s every single listen — no purchase required — that counts toward profit.
On the day Lifetime aired the finale of Surviving R. Kelly, Kelly’s back-catalog streams shot up as much as 116 percent according to Nielsen, rising from 1.9 million on January 2nd to 4.3 million on January 3rd. Using a rough back-of-envelope calculation with the oft-cited rate of 0.0084 cents per Spotify stream, that’s a boost of around $20,000 in a day. Kelly’s streams during the three days of the documentary’s airing also saw a 65 percent daily bump.
It is fashionable now to condemn R. Kelly: Adding to the reckoning-that-wasn’t, last week saw a slew of convenient apologies from prominent musicians like Chance the Rapper, Phoenix and Lady Gaga, demonstrating remorse for collaborating with him or otherwise adding to his clout in the music industry. But as an accidental quirk of the streaming business model, all the negative press so far has ended up in a surge of money for the singer — so much so that, if he releases another album in the future, no matter under which record label or publisher, he’s almost guaranteed to get even richer from the streams of curious listeners.
It’s a problem that Spotify foresaw last year when it tried to introduce a hateful conduct content policy, which was quickly repealed after people accused it of trying to be a moral police force; so far, though, the streaming service’s move has proven the only one — of all other music companies — to be of substance rather than posturing.
Kelly, who was indicted in 2002 for child pornography but acquitted in 2008, has repeatedly denied the charges brought forth by his numerous alleged victims. The singer and his immediate team have not provided a response to any Rolling Stone requests for comment.