Trugoy the Dove, byname for David Jude Jolicoeur Vincent Mason "Maseo" of De La Soul perform at Gods of Rap 2019 in Berlin, Germany. Photo credit: Parkbühne Wuhlheide of Creative Commons

Masters of their destiny. Musicians land ownership of their work after tooth-and-nail battle

6 mins read

Anita Baker and De La Soul became one of the few recording artists to gain full control of their music—emancipating them from the machine.

Master Recordings: The original recording of an artist’s work. Whomever owns the initial recordings has complete and total control in determining how they are used, and subsequently copied. Moreover, those who have proprietorship over master recordings get compensated for subsequent use.

“All my children are coming home,” tweeted legendary R&B singer Anita Baker in early September. In the post were the first five of seven completed and released studio albums in her successful, Grammy-award winning singing career spanning almost four decades. Although the tweet was simple and sweet, her battle to gain complete ownership of her masters catalog went far from bringing her joy.

Earlier in 2021, Baker asked a fan to not buy nor stream her music on Spotify, or any streaming platform because the record labels holding her music had not given her the intellectual property rights. In her claims, she “outlived” her contracts, but had yet to be given back her music.

By law, the creator of a work has the right to recapture their copyright 35 years after the original date of the copyright. However, the authors of the pieces only have five years to seek ownership after the original assignee’s expiration date.

To make a complicated process more arduous, artists can request copyrights, at the earliest, 25 years from the date of the copyright. That is, if musicians are still alive and able to legally file for ownership after 25 years in the music industry. Hands down, the window of time, plus the paperwork to terminate the original ownership, places favor in the odds of whomever laid claim first, which is typically record labels. Often, the last person empowered is the artist.

| Watch: Anita Baker fights for her masters, takes on the music industry

Yet and still, “impossible things happen,” Baker added to her celebratory Twitter post. She is right. What most industry outsiders do not know is that the majority of recording artists—both big names and small—do not own their music. Consequently, they fall at the end of a long list filled with corporations and people getting paid before them from their creative currency.

To worsen the economic breakdown of royalties and profit, musicians have little to no say in how their music is used. This probably points to why Baker describes her post-performance status as “retired from the plantation,” because most artists never get the lion’s share of the profit.

The idea of being a “slave” in the music business was first openly introduced by the singer and songwriting performer Prince Nelson Rogers, who for many years went by his stage name Prince. Amidst a contentious fight to gain control of all his earlier work, he began to write “slave” on his cheek. In resistance, he changed his performance name to a symbol and went by the term, “the artist formerly known as Prince.”

Equating the music industry to a system of bondage presents a double burden for African Americans, the descendants of those enslaved in the brutal U.S. chattel slavery. When enslaved Blacks were emancipated, they started with the only ownership they had—that of their personhood. In some cases, that still was debatable.

Decades later, as African Americans struggled for equity and space in the country, musicianship and performance became one of the few avenues to develop an enterprise. Even more so, with the advent of a hip hop industry that has permeated almost all spaces in the world, music has been a popular vehicle to earn an income.

But, Baker’s fame and adoration by fans spanning multiple generations brought light to her hard-fought efforts. Most are not lucky enough to use public pressure to emancipate themselves. DMX, Black Rob, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and Billie Holiday are a few names of musical performers who either died almost penniless or in severe debt.

. . . .
Sean Combs Speaking at The Cable Show 2014. Combs is founder of BadBoy recording label and Revolt! cable televisions network. Photo credit: The Calbe Show on Flickr

While there are apparent racist practices in the industry, there are also Black-run labels who operate like their white counterparts. After Sean Combs, founder of Bad Boy Records, gave a speech encouraging Black artists to take control of their art at the famous 2020 Clive Davis pre-Grammy party, his former labelmate, Mase, posted an open letter implying Combs’ hypocrisy.

“Your past business practices knowingly has continued purposely starved your artist and been extremely unfair to the very same artist that helped u obtain that Icon Award on the iconic Badboy label,” penned the Harlem-native rapper who became a pastor after his years on stage. “For example, u still got my publishing from 24 years ago in which u gave me $20k. Which makes me never want to work w/ u as any artist wouldn’t.”

Combs, who is noted as the first billionaire in hip hop, has lately been demanding Black artists be duly compensated by the mainstream for their contributions to “the culture.” Allegedly, he also has a long-standing notoriety for grossly exploiting the company’s talent. 

Combs’ former bodyguard Gene Deal claimed that Combs ripped off the iconic Brooklyn emcee, Notorious B.I.G., and his mother after his unsolved murder in Los Angeles.“Y’all know when B.I.G died, Puff said he was in a stoop and he was so messed up that he couldn’t do nothing . . .  but he never told y’all that he contacted the people who was doing the editing on the [I’ll Be Missing You] video dedicated to [B.I.G.].”

Deal goes on to say that another B.I.G. tribute by The Lox, “We’ll Always Love Big Poppa,” was made by the group because Combs said B.I.G.’s mother, Voletta Wallace, would get “100 percent of the proceeds”  through the Biggie Foundation. However, Combs “wrote a memo” to get 25 percent of the profits.

In April 2021, WME Management announced that it would partner with Wallace to oversee the Notorious B.I.G. Estate.

. . . .
Posdnuos of De La Soul performing at the Marsatac Festival in 2008. Photo credit: Benoît Derrier of Creative Commons

The silver lining in the trail of these sad stories is that the treachery of the industry continues to be exposed. In endless documentaries and investigative stories, artists who have produced timeless hits from soul music to hip hop, now detail decades of exploitative business practices. From record labels to managers, repositories of horrific narratives recount underpaid work, never paid creations, or work stolen while in the industry.

“Going through this process, it’s been a helluva learning experience and people need to understand that the record business is not really into giving the artist back their catalogue,” admitted Pasemaster Mase, shortly after his group De La Soul finalized a harsh, years-long chess game for their masters from noted hip-hop record label, Tommy Boy.

After negotiations to gain catalog ownership fell apart, the group and the label sat in a stalemate. Often what happens, labels bury artists’ work or simply ignore their requests then do what they want with the music. However, De La Soul fought back.

Much like Baker, part of the act’s protest included a boycott they launched in 2019, in which they asked fans to refrain from streaming or purchasing their music. “Our catalog will not see the light of day by way of our involvement or consent,” they said on their Instagram page. As well, they requested fellow hip hop artists to turn down their work from being played on streaming platforms.

So, De La Soul sat until June of this year when it was announced that Reservoir Media acquired Tommy Boy Records for $100 million dollars. In turn, they gave their master’s back to the group, who will also release music under the new label.

“We’re happy that that chapter is over and done with,” elated Trugoy the Dove, a now seasoned artist with gray hairs speckled in his beard. De La Soul said they will finally release new music at the end of the year.

But De La’s deejay, Mase who also goes by Maseo, emphasized that what “we’ve done for the culture,” winning back their masters in this case, is a unique feat against a corporation in the industry.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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