Artists Want to Own Their Masters. R&B Is Leading the Way - Rolling Stone
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‘We Can Do It Ourselves’: R&B Singers Are Leaving Major Labels

Charlie Wilson, Ledisi, and Anthony Hamilton are the latest R&B veterans to take back control of their careers

R&B Goes Indie

Artists want to own their masters. R&B is leading the way.

Paras Griffin/Getty Images, Scott Dudelson/Getty Images, Paras Griffin/Getty Images

When Anthony Hamilton, one of the last mainstream singers working in the Southern soul tradition, releases his eighth studio album in 2021, it will mark the first time that the 49-year-old R&B veteran owns the rights to his music. “We’ve thought about this day since 2005,” says Eli Davis, Hamilton’s longtime manager. “You’re no longer a ‘slave’ to a system.”

Hamilton, whose tender, tortured “Back Together (Quiet Storm Mix)” is currently climbing at radio, is part of a growing number of R&B acts cutting ties with major labels. After years of fealty to a broken system — one that often takes ownership of a singer’s masters as part of any deal — many R&B acts are regaining control of their music, and their careers. 

Charlie Wilson, the former Gap Band member whose exuberant “One I Got” single is also rising at R&B radio, is now operating independently after fulfilling a six-album major label deal. Ledisi’s The Wild Card, due August 28th, is her first independent release in over a decade. These singers join a growing movement: Leela James, Raheem DeVaughn, India.Arie, Fantasia, Brandy, K-Ci Hailey, and K. Michelle are among the artists who enjoy some commercial success — R&B radio hits, well attended shows — and have decided (or been forced) to create their music outside of the major-label system. 

“Everyone came to the point: What are you all doing for us?” explains Michael Paran, who runs P Music Group, a label and management company that works with Wilson and Hailey, among others. “Major labels are not gonna do anything for me. The only thing I would want is for them to go work mainstream radio, but that’s not gonna happen. So why do you give up everything just to have a label?”

For the last four decades, this was not a question many R&B singers were able to act on. Since the Seventies, when the big record companies started aggressively signing black singers and buying black-owned labels, mainstream R&B has primarily been a major label concern. Even Motown, the independent label that did so much to define R&B success, was absorbed by the majors in the 1980s. 

Over the last decade, R&B and major labels started to uncouple. This is partially because a new range of options for independent artists makes it easier for R&B to do without labels, and partially because labels’ focus on streaming above all else has also made them more willing to do without R&B. 

“The way that I operate, the managers now are the label.”

With occasional exceptions like Summer Walker or Daniel Caesar, R&B rarely yields the type of blockbuster stream counts that are common in hip-hop or reggaeton. This is especially true for artists above the age of 30 — core R&B fans who grew up listening to Hamilton or K-Ci & JoJo haven’t all made the transition from buying albums and listening on the radio to streaming. That means that as the major labels have become increasingly focused on hitting quarterly streaming goals, they have started to view a large swathe of R&B as a less enticing proposition. 

In response, R&B acts didn’t just take their services to indie labels; they effectively became their own labels. Leela James set up a licensing deal — where ownership of the music reverts back to the artist after a set time period — with the label services company BMG before releasing 2014’s Fall for You. Around the same time, Tyrese and Johnny Gill set up comparable arrangements with different distribution companies.  

“The way that I operate, the managers now are the label,” Paran says. “If you have good infrastructure, you’re doing the day-to-day stuff, and you know how to work radio, you can win.” 

Younger artists started making similar decisions as well. Frank Ocean came up in the world of major-label R&B before giving his record company the slip in a very public way in 2016. Not long after, Brent Faiyaz and his manager, Ty Baisden, became vocal about the nonsensical deals offered by major labels, choosing to keep that system at arm’s length from the beginning. 

R&B’s increasing self-reliance may turn out to benefit the genre. Earlier this year, India.Arie said she was “so happy” when she got dropped by her major label. “It’s hard when you have a company which then takes all of your intellectual property and your heart and sometimes they do it right and sometimes they don’t and it can be very hurtful,” she added

In addition, major labels bear plenty of responsibility for limiting R&B’s reach. The big record companies are usually unwilling to imagine the genre occupying a different place in the music ecosystem, where “pop” is at the top of the heap and everything else is treated like a second-class citizen. Radio still matters for R&B since the genre doesn’t always stream, but as Paran notes, a major label will almost never take a hit R&B single to pop radio — the music is mostly consigned to “Adult R&B.” 

If the big record companies aren’t going to foster a new set of opportunities for R&B singers, those acts have little to gain from a label deal. In those arrangements, “you don’t really have a say-so in how your budget is spent,” says Rex Rideout, a producer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist who has spent three decades in R&B’s trenches and is now a part of Ledisi’s management team

“We were always in the black,” Paran adds, speaking about Wilson’s major-label days. “But there was no real money for Charlie.”

“The benefits that come from owning your own masters are tremendous: a larger portion of sales, royalties, sync licenses.” 

That’s why R&B’s renewed focus on self sufficiency makes sense. In the last two years, Hamilton, Wilson, Ledisi, DeVaughn, India.Arie, and Fantasia have used BMG as a partner and licensed their albums to the company for a few years in exchange for light help with marketing, recording, or promotion costs. 

In the BMG deals, “usually artists get their masters back after four or five years,” Craig Davis explains, “and do a 70-30 profit split,” — 70 percent to the artist — “or maybe even 75-25. That’s totally different from when they were a major-label artist getting 12, 15, or 18 percent” through royalties (after they recoup, if they ever recoup). 

Some younger R&B artists, like Guordan Banks, Shay Lia, and Kyle Dion, have found a home at AWAL, another company that can offer some marketing support and other perks but allows artists to retain ownership of their music. “R&B takes time to get up and running, but there’s a lot of longevity in that space,” says Eddie Blackmon, vp of A&R at AWAL and co-host of the Cast of R&B podcast. Blackmon recently had a conversation about the AWAL model with both the R&B veteran Tank and the younger singer Gallant, who are both looking for a new funding partners after finishing major label deals. 

There is one catch: For R&B artists to succeed as their own labels, they must spend frugally. The D’Angelo model of jamming in the studio for years is not sustainable (unfortunately); mega-budget videos are out of the question. While artists can’t torch through piles of cash, “you have the potential to make money on the back end,” Rideout says. “The benefits that come from owning your own masters are tremendous: a larger portion of sales, royalties, sync licenses,” Eli Davis adds.   

Moving forward, managers like Rideout are envisioning a new model for black artistic independence — a self-sustaining R&B industry that barely needs outside distributors to help with marketing and recording costs. “What I see happening is a group of artists get together and finance each other’s albums; they become like a co-op,” Rideout says. “They can tour together, take the expenses together.” 

“We can do it ourselves,” Paran promises. “We have the money, the know-how, the infrastructure, and artists you can rely on. That’s all you need.” 

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