UPDATE (4/1): Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record label, officially confirmed its new “goodwill program” to wipe the unrecouped advances of some legacy artists and songwriters. The company properly unveiled the program in its annual report, issued Thursday, March 31.
UMG didn’t specify which of its legacy artists would qualify for the program, only stipulating that starting this year “eligible creators and their immediate heirs who have not received any payments since January 1, 2000, will begin receiving royalties, subject to certain conditions.” The label added that it would be contacting eligible artists and songwriters in the coming months. A rep for UMG did not immediately return Rolling Stone’s request for comment on how eligibility is determined.
WMG announced its “legacy unrecouped advances program” in its first Environmental Social Governance report, which was published Tuesday, Feb. 1. The program will launch July 1 and it will cover artists and songwriters who signed to the label before 2000 and didn’t receive an advance during or after that year. Other royalty participants, like producers, engineers, mixers, and remixers will also qualify for WMG’s program.
Universal hasn’t officially announced its own program, though sources did confirm it would be rolled out soon, according to both MBW and Variety. Universal is expected to offer more details when it issues its own ESG report in the next few months. (A representative for UMG did not immediately return Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)
Wiping the unrecouped debts of artists and songwriters is at once a welcome move and arguably the bare minimum major labels can do to aid the myriad musicians whose work made them the wildly wealthy conglomerates they are today. Traditionally, when an artist signed a record deal, they’d receive an advance, and while those sums could be hefty, the artist would only start making money from their music after paying back that advance. Exploitative, yet industry standard royalty rates meant an artist would need to be a major commercial success to come close to paying back their advance, as well as any other potential expenses like recording fees, distribution, and marketing.
As such, countless artists have gone decades without seeing a dime — or only just a few pennies — for their music as they continue to pay off their advances. Calls to wipe these debts gained traction in 2020 amid the protests against police brutality and racial injustice, as people within the music industry sought ways to rectify its longstanding history of racial inequality. But it wasn’t until last June that Sony became the first label to confirm it would wipe old debts.
While artists and artist advocates hailed the move, some skepticism and distrust has remained as musicians and their families try to get a better sense of their financial situation. In 2020, well before Sony announced a label-wide decision to wipe unrecouped debts, it told the family of R&B legend Johnnie Taylor that it would clear his remaining advance debt and offer his nine heirs a one-time payment of $97,000. But as Rolling Stone reported last November, Taylor’s family is still struggling to get a clear sense of their late father’s royalty situation and how much money his music continued to make.
Fonda Bryant, one of Taylor’s daughters, told Rolling Stone, “It’s almost like they’re thinking, ‘OK, if we give them this money they’ll go away and won’t bother us again.’ I guess [Sony] thought, ‘OK, Fonda knows they got the money now, and they’ll be OK.’ No, I’m not OK. … I think they’re lying through their teeth.”