One night back in the 1950s in Knoxville, Tennessee, a young Chuck Berry was driving to a club to play his hit song: “Maybellene.”
But when he got there, the organizers were surprised to find out that Berry was Black. And they didn’t let Black people play at the club. So, Berry, the father of rock ‘n’ roll, had to sit in his car and listen to some white musicians play his biggest hit.
And even though Berry wrote “Maybellene” himself, he had to share writing credits — and therefore earnings — with two white men: a DJ who’d promoted the song and a guy who had loaned money to the label. It wasn’t until the ’80s that Berry finally got sole credit.
Activists say these attitudes are still around.
“The business hasn’t changed, in terms of how the business was set up. And it’s been this way since the beginning,” said Ron Sweeney, a veteran music lawyer. He’s represented P. Diddy, Lil Wayne and DMX. Sweeney said he remembers back in the ’90s, when he started representing James Brown, he looked at the famed singer’s contract and saw that “James Brown, the biggest artist ever, was only getting a 3% royalty.”
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Nowadays, Sweeney said, a major artist would make no less than 18%. In the end, Sweeney said, he shamed the label into giving Brown around 12%.
The industry has been accused of exploiting musicians of all backgrounds. But Temple University law professor Funmi Arewa said labels especially profited off Black musicians, who were already in vulnerable positions.
“The whole idea of copyright is that we are supposed to reward creativity,” Arewa said. “And what we see systematically is business structures and uses of copyright in ways that deprive African Americans of benefits that should’ve flowed to them.”
Fast-forward to 2020, and many say the industry hasn’t changed enough. This summer, the Black Music Action Coalition — a group of writers, producers, musicians and others — is calling for labels to “make things right” for Black artists and executives. Including the lack of diversity in record label boardrooms.
“A lot of things that happen in the industry, it’s like a good ol’ boys club-type thing, and the hard part is breaking into that circle, that little bubble,” said Joe Conner, a drummer and talent scout for Deep Well Records. He started off as a driver for one of the label executives, and when he finally got into the executive meetings himself, he “would notice that I was the only brown person in the room or I was the only Black person around.”
Major labels, like Sony and Warner, have pledged $100 million each to social justice groups. They’ve also committed to diversifying their leadership ranks.
“I think it’s great that labels are saying that they’re going to do this and that,” said Josh Kun, who studies the music industry at the University of Southern California. “But I think if you look at over a century’s worth of unequal royalties in the music industry, we’re looking at dollar figures that are astronomical.”
Universal and BMG have said they are looking into paying back artists whose contracts were heavily weighted against them. BMG said it would update artists “in the coming days.” Universal didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Black Music Action Coalition declined to comment.
“These companies have made a tremendous amount of money. And they make a lot of money off of Black music,” said Sweeney, the music lawyer. “It’s almost like a country club. And so folks are saying, open up the country club, and let us join.”
The days of segregated venues, like the one Chuck Berry got turned away from, are gone. But the color of power, in music, is still white.
Want to hear more artists who had bad blood with their labels, and claimed they got into bad deals? Here’s a playlist featuring some of the most notorious cases. It was created by listener Jonhayro Rivera and Jasmine Garsd: