Hip Hop emcee Jadakiss, one of the members of The LOX, performs at the Apple Store in SoHO in June 2011. The LOX participated in a Verzuz show with Dipset in August 2021. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

How to rob. For the culture Verzuz for the profit?

The Verzuz battles reveal questions of capital gain as they possibly exploit competing Hip Hop and R&B veterans. Many of whom have long-fought for financial control of their work. 

The pandemic forced hitmakers to engage with their audiences in innovative ways. A result being the Verzuz property, a brainchild of mega producers Swizz Beat and Timbaland. Verzuz started as head-to-head, pseudo-battles between seasoned performers in a live show on Instagram. Now it streams live with shows at Madison Square Garden. Filled with electronic mishaps and over-showings, even a policeman or two, scrimmages were widely admired in the Black social media sphere amidst shutdown orders. 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I’m like, ‘What else we got to do? Let’s explore this platform that we have…[a]nd it worked,’” Timbaland explained.

The spontaneous Instagram mashups started during the harshest period of the pandemic lockdown. Ultimately turning to all out events, viewership reached upwards of 9.1 million at its peak. Many saw it as an organic innovation by Black artists as the pandemic brought economic instability to the entertainment industry. As well, the competitions brought increased exposure for the performers in question. 

“Right now we just want to keep it for the culture because it’s so organic. We don’t want to bring [major networks] in right away,” said Timbaland after officially filing a trademark for “Verzuz TV” in April 2020. 

He further detailed, “We just wanna keep it where people are entertained because we live in a world where 16 million people lost jobs. We don’t wanna get into all the politics of it, we wanna keep it natural.”

Since Timbaland’s decision came after the record-breaking showings of Lil Jon against T-Pain and Ne-Yo versus Johnta Austin, questions surrounding whether Verzuz is for the culture and artistry, or just another exploitative measure for financially vulnerable artists, arose . 

I’m a business, man…

According to a BBC article, UK Music reports that two thirds of musicians lost income following pandemic era losses like concerts. “The effective shutdown of concerts and festivals will also cause live music revenues to fall by 85% in 2020.” While In the U.S., private sector music companies like Universal Music Group and Live Nation had to financially support their rosters as debts piled.

“We haven’t made one cent off of Verzuz yet,” asserted Swiss Beatz. “But, what we have is a museum. Verzuz is a museum. It’s an educational, celebrational platform. “We own Verzuz a hundred percent. “There’s no middlemen involved in Verzuz. Swizz Beatz and Timbaland own Verzuz a hundred percent.”

However, the Verzuz show received special permission to run their show longer than the 59 minutes given to live feeds. Plus, Instagram still made money with its profitting scheme of selling the data of its users for targeted advertising.

Nonetheless, the franchise signed a streaming deal with Apple after amassing acclaim. Since then, competitions have been marred with advertisements from Ciroc and Revolt TV among others. Ultimately, Versus was sold to Ryan Kavanaugh’s Triller social network for an undisclosed amount. A rival to Tiktok, the company’s net worth is somewhere between $1.25 billion and $10 billion. The latter are self-reported earnings. 

The good?

“You can’t just leave these icons on the side of the road,” Timbaland added. “Every Verzuz we’ve done, it’s reminded people how great these icons are.”

Indeed, the musical brawls have seen a nostalgic reinvigoration of past beloved musicians and their songs. For instance, players saw a 215 percent spike in their streaming following The Lox and Dipset New York matchup, a commonality post-event. 

Dubbed the “Verzuz effect,” contenders—who many times, have not charted in decades— see a surge in streaming and charting numbers. In the past couple of years, Patti LaBelle has branched out to the culinary world via television shows and cookbooks. Yet, her battle with Gladys Knight saw the biggest streaming numbers for either veteran in their entire careers. A rare feat.

Arguably, the push is much needed post pandemic. An era that saw the showmen fold.

Or, the bad?

Decades-long allegations of predatory recording contract practices like 360 deals have led  many to seek alternative routes to sustain financial longevity. Some branch to various facets of the entertainment industry. For instance, Young Jeezy

Real name Jay Wayne Jenkins, Jeezy has transitioned into executive roles within the industry. He was named Senior Vice President and A&R of Atlantic Records in 2012. In 2020, he signed a multifaceted contract as a rapper and senior advisor to the label chairman at Def Jam. To date, his entrepreneurial pursuits include fitness water Defiance Fuel, as well as his marketing and brand management company, Agency 99.

On the other hand, a majority of performers have had to fight for their financial independence via lawsuits, claiming they should profit from their work. An example being a master license, which “keeps an artist in full creative control” in regards to who has access to their work and how it is used as explained by music industry lawyer Victoria Wood

For example, Anita Baker and De La Soul engaged in years-long fights for their masters prior to their recent victories. Each act has been in the music industry for over 30 years. 

Depending on who owns what percentage of the product, artists could also be monetarily at the mercy of their record labels. Acts possibly miss out on long-term millions because they hastily sign contracts to get short-term advances, not fully understanding the implications. 

“People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face,” Prince told Rolling Stone in 1996 after protesting his 1992 deal with Warner Bros Music. “But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I? When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave. That’s where I was. I don’t own Prince’s music. If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you.” Prince and Warner Bros. reached an agreement 20 years later in 2014. Yet, Prince did not live long thereafter. He died in 2016. 

. . . .

At the moment, only a few own their masters. For those who do not, they must diversify their professional options in order to economically maintain. 

As acts grow older and popularity wanes, platforms like Verzuz have reinvigorated interests in their music via exposure to audiences new and old. This has short and long-term potential for these recording artists, leading to increased profits via streaming or endorsement deals. However, relying on the franchise may leave the talent at mercy of their labels and possibly the culture, too.

Although each has experienced financial woes after the height of their popularity— including a music festival scam or excessive spending—the last Verzuz battle was between 2000’s-era NY rappers Ja Rule and Fat Joe on September 14

 

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, and Afro-Latinidad.

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