Kanye West, one of the most popular, influential and commercially successful musicians of the past 20 years – who effectively set his business and career on fire with a series of indefensible anti-Semitic comments – is currently without a record label or music publisher. Universal Music’s Def Jam Recordings and Sony Music Publishing are both in breach of contract with him, and many of his other business partners have severed ties following his recent behavior. In purely musical terms, the situation is unprecedented.
Def Jam, which held the copyright to his recordings until the mid-2010s and distributed later versions until last year’s “Donda” album, has confirmed that its deal with the company has ended last year. (Copyright credits on some albums have changed in recent weeks; it now appears West owns his masters from 2013’s “Yeezy” album.) As with RCA Records and R. Kelly, the company will continue to possess and/or distribute its catalog, and to benefit from it, according to the terms of their contract. Def Jam presumably owns the recorded music rights to its earlier recordings for decades to come, though it’s unclear when post-2013 releases will get a new distribution deal.
Sony Publishing has confirmed that its administration contract with the company ended earlier this year, although it will continue to administer its work, under the terms of the agreement, for an indefinite period.
So what happens when he wants to release new music? He released three songs in collaboration with other artists this year (all before his anti-Semitic comments), but all of them were on his collaborators’ labels — a less easy scenario to imagine now.
Presumably, based on his recent comments about launching his own clothing lines, he’ll release the music himself. But releasing music at the Kanye West level requires major business partners – who will work with him?
While the majors – Universal, Sony and Warner Music Groups – are likely out of the equation for the foreseeable future, it’s possible he could strike a deal with a major indie like hip-hop powerhouse Empire, Create Music Group. (which distributes Tekashi 6ix 9ine) or France-based Believe, which is one of the few Western music companies that did not shut down or drastically reduce its operations in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
However, these or similar companies should prepare for serious fallout. “It would have to be someone who was willing to be ostracized,” said a veteran music industry executive. “The other artists on the label or the distributor, not to mention the staff, probably wouldn’t put up with it.” (Representatives of these companies did not immediately respond to Varietythough one said many of their company’s staff would have strong opinions about such a decision.)
It is certainly possible to work within the label system on a per release basis: Prince managed to avoid signing to a label for the last 20 years of his career – owning his masters and licensing some releases to majors, d ‘others to bigger independents and others just on the internet – though he didn’t carry the baggage that West does.
However, it’s easy enough for an artist of West’s stature to just release music and not worry about traditional distribution, radio airplay, or even making CDs or vinyl. If he wasn’t able to find a mate, he could just make an announcement on social media and upload the music to virtually any streaming service, as long as the song didn’t include what Spotify qualifies. of “hate speech” or any other content. service policies prohibit; most services do not exclude an artist based on their conduct, but rather the content of the music. The streaming services all pay royalties to the rightsholders, which is usually a record label, but in this case it would be West and anyone he might associate with.
Editing, however, is a more complex matter. Researching and collecting publishing royalties, known as administration, is a complex and laborious operation that requires significant infrastructure; even a big publisher like Primary Wave Music outsources it to big companies like Universal and Warner.
Some of the work is relatively automatic: mechanical streaming royalties are collected by the non-profit Mechanical Licensing Collective, and he continues to be affiliated with the performing rights organization BMI (which even named him author -Composer of the Year at his 2021 Trailblazers of Gospel Music Awards), who, per his mandate, cannot end a relationship with a songwriter.
In a statement provided to Variety, a BMI representative said: “Anti-Semitism, racism and hatred have no place in our society, and we condemn Kanye West’s harmful and dangerous rhetoric. Under our consent decree, BMI is mandated to accept all songwriters who wish to join our organization.Our fulfillment of this mandate does not tolerate any hate speech from any individual.
However, to rely solely on mechanical and performance royalties is to leave a huge amount of money on the table – perhaps reaching into the millions with a catalog like West’s.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine a big publisher — or even a smaller one — agreeing to work with West even on a hire basis, though it could probably be done under the radar for a while. It’s possible he could use a semi-automated music licensing company like Songtradr, which uses technology to track and monetize catalogs, or strike a deal with a larger company like Downtown Music or Kobalt, which have licensing divisions. artist services that handle everything from physical product to publication administration. (Representatives of these companies did not immediately respond to Varietyrequests for comments.)
However, these situations are “very passive patterns,” says another veteran industry executive. “There is almost no direct interaction between the company and the artist; they collect fees and pay the balance. Someone must oversee the catalog, be proactive and answer incoming calls [opportunities]especially for one as large and lucrative as his.
Perhaps the more likely scenario would be West acquiring an existing publishing company to provide him with this infrastructure or, more likely still, hiring a small team to take care of these tasks. West is far from broke and likely won’t be for some time, though he’s seen his net worth plummet by an estimated $900 million according to Forbes (or $2 billion according to himself).
“A handful of people would suffice and I’m sure he could find [professionals]“, says another veteran executive, “but revenues would still drop quite dramatically. “
Of course, there is another option: selling your catalog. Reports emerged several weeks ago that representatives for West were exploring the possibility, and although he denied it, The New York Times quoted sources earlier this week as saying it was true. But while there’s been a booming market for song catalogs in recent years — culminating with Bruce Springsteen selling his for $600 million — it seems reasonable to assume that West’s music has dropped significantly in value. , as well as that of its clothing and footwear brands. . And if large companies are reluctant to do business with him, it seems equally unlikely that they will be interested in acquiring and marketing his catalog.
“He denied [exploring a sale] a few weeks ago, but its finances have clearly become more strained,” the executive continues. “And there are many valuation issues, particularly the toxic equation that impacts future earnings – and future earnings are what investors are most concerned about. These unprecedented moral issues raise a lot of questions about the risk.
Finally, if West attempted to go on tour or arrange live performances, he would likely encounter a scenario similar to that which R. Kelly faced in the later years of his career. Kelly has played a series of hard-core fan gigs organized with local promoters — bypassing bigger companies like Live Nation and AEG, which usually handle tours of artists of this caliber — but these have increasingly were canceled as outcry from fans and others led promoters to cut their losses. It’s also unclear what impact his anti-Semitic comments may have had on the dozens of people who played or attended his Christian-themed Sunday services.
It’s hard to imagine how West is coming back from the events of the past few weeks. He has always been an annoyance and a provocateur, increasingly to his detriment in recent years, and he has rarely publicly apologized. It’s possible, if not unlikely, that once this final episode is over, he could become contrite, apologize, and attempt to win back the fans he’s lost.
“Could he come back? If he apologized and sounded sincerely, convincingly, sorry, it’s possible… possible,” said a leader. “But that would take a long time. It’s hard to imagine him ever approaching his former status as a musician or businessman. There are things you just can’t not say.
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