One of the oldest and saddest stories in the recorded music business has always been the naivete of artists who, eager for fame, jump to sign contracts without thinking of future ramifications.
True horror stories of songs sold for a bottle of wine or a used Cadillac aren’t the rule anymore. But other stories abound of contracts that front-load massive debt and lock in artists for one-sided agreements, resulting in popular artists never seeing anything beyond the advance, a sum which is always cannibalized by the nibbles of a thousand pecks.
It’s why you see some artists out on the road even as their health deteriorates. It’s their only real source of income, since recorded music royalties reward but a few.
The accounting practices have been so entrenched that it came as a shock this week when Sony Music did something about it. The company announced it has canceled the debts of thousands of artists who signed to the record label before the year 2000. They will now pay royalties from Jan. 2021 forward to those affected.
What that means is that many artists will finally be able to receive money from streaming services.
“We are not modifying existing contracts, but choosing to pay through on existing unrecouped balances to increase the ability of those who qualify to receive more money from uses of their music,” it said.
Sony Music declined to name which acts are affected by their decision. However, the BBC reported that the deal embraced “household names.”
So far, Universal Music and Warner Music have not said whether they will match the effort.
The Sony Music charitable offer comes as Britain’s Parliament is looking into record industry accounting practices. An ad-hoc organization called #BrokenRecord has been lobbying for greater transparency and scrutiny on deals.
It also comes as music is attracting more money than ever. Catalog sales by Bob Dylan and Stevie Nicks, among others, have drawn enormous sums, and Universal Music itself is said to be contemplating a sale that would value it at around $40 billion.
Gomez musician Tom Gray, who founded the #BrokenRecord campaign, told the BBC that Sony’s move was “incredibly welcome. From the perspective of somebody who’s been running a campaign to try and get these companies to behave more ethically and transparently, it feels like a win,” he said.
It should be interesting to see how this will echo for musicians who have created works that bring great joy, but have not seen their rightful compensation. So far, let’s give it a 7, as it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. It will definitely become a true hit if others follow suit.