Kanye West

Kanye is suiting up for war. Armed with Twitter fingers, corrupt contracts and his signature confidence, the 43-year-old has taken aim at major record labels, who made a combined $13.14 Billion in 2018. He is looking to fight for musicians’ rights, end the colonization of creativity and strive for independence in an aggressively controlling industry. 

Every musician needs a record label. They pay an artist to advertise, network and publish their music, and in return they take a large percentage of the profit. The larger the label, the bigger the buyout. 

But an artist also has to subscribe to their system. The biggest three labels — Universal Music Group, Sony, and Warner Music Group — demand a certain quantity and quality of music and signing their contracts can spell creative doom. While these companies control 30% of the recorded music industry, artists everywhere struggle to live up to unrealistic expectations and see their creativity, autonomy, and rights to their music disappear. 

This is what Kanye West is up against: a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that lives off of coerced contracts and creative property theft. And he’s not alone. Fellow Chicago rappers Noname and Chance the Rapper have also been outspoken about their qualms with the industry — and even pop stars like Taylor Swift have denounced the royalty systems of streaming services and major record labels. Though they each take a unique perspective on the issue. While Kanye fights for the rights to his masters and music, Noname challenges the commercialization of black culture, and Chance wishes to have full creative control. Each artist has their reasons, yet the end-goal remains the same: stop the manipulation of music by major labels. 

But the question remains, how do you infiltrate and take over a multi-billion-dollar industry? The key is independence, owning and controlling one’s own creative property. This is why Kanye West is suing Universal Music Group, to reclaim the rights to his masters. For those who don’t know, masters are the original versions of music, and whoever owns them has the final say over their distribution and profit. Labels usually pay artists a set amount of cash to own their masters, which they then can make an infinite amount of money off of. Therefore, an artist’s song can get millions of streams, top charts and win awards, but a corporation will cash the check. 

The balance of power is too off, the gap between major label profit and artist profit too wide,” Kanye told Billboard, “and I will work to re-think the design of the entire way we move in this space.”

Kanye has started by opening a lawsuit and promising to return his 50% stake in the masters of every artist signed to his label, G.O.O.D music. This includes Big Sean, John Legend, Pusha T and others receiving more credit and cash for their work. However, he won’t stop there. Seeing a large and influential artist like Kanye go independent is a threat to major labels. Therefore West is trying to force them to sign fairer contracts, ones that abandon an age-old process of manipulation and bureaucracy.

I’m committed to doing whatever is necessary so artists own their own copyrights. The response is awesome because everyone knows this is a broken system that needs to be fixed.” Kanye described in the same Billboard interview, “Currently, artists take advances to make records, and yet when they repay those advances the record company still owns the records. Imagine a bank lending you money to buy a house and then when you’ve repaid that mortgage, them telling you they still own it.”

This commodification of artists has been an important point of contention for Noname. Hip-hop, as a genre created by, maintained by, and consisting of primarily black culture, has become overrun by mainstream white audiences and controlled by a capitalist interest. Meanwhile, she — as a black performer — is expected to cater her music, performance style, and self to an inauthentic and unappreciative fanbase. It is frustrating, it’s unfair, and it resulted in her expressing herself on Twitter last fall.

“Unfortunately, I’m not going to keep performing for predominately white crowds. I have two shows on the books then after that I’m chilling on making music. If y’all don’t wanna leave the crib I feel it. I don’t want to dance on a stage for white people.” 

Noname’s supposed retirement is still in the air, but she makes a powerful point. The gentrification of hip-hop is very real, and artists everywhere are having to sacrifice their authenticity and identity for an industry that ignores and manipulates them. The industry is designed to make as much money as possible, and that primarily comes from rich, white audiences who can afford tour tickets and Spotify subscriptions. Meanwhile, that same system traps black entertainers in predatory contracts and treats them as dispensable. 

Noname has taken steps to kickstart her own success. When talking at Georgetown University last January, Noname stated the best decision she’s ever made was being independent as an artist. She has complete creative control to focus her energy wherever she desires and uplift the communities she identifies with: “Being independent makes me feel sane.”

Noname works heavily on educating both her fanbase and hip-hop listeners worldwide. She started Noname’s Book Club in 2019, an organization focused on uplifting voices of color and challenging the establishment. With actions like these, Noname is undermining an industry that takes advantage of artists and giving people the tools to take back their autonomy.

Hip-hop artists like Kanye and Noname are redefining the regulations that control the rap genre. One step at a time, they are dismantling a system that only serves itself and sacrifices creativity, artists, and autonomy for profit. Many other musicians around the world are taking  action as well. 

Chance the Rapper has become an icon of independent hip-hop, having never signed to a major label since his start. He works intensely in both politics and social services, spending his time and money where it is most needed. He is also a firm believer in having full creative control. Whether Chance wants to make a jazz album or spit hardcore freestyles is completely his decision. He encourages other artists to follow his lead and challenges anyone who says it is unrealistic to reflect on mainstream manipulation.

“It’s only unrealistic because of the conditioning all artists are exposed to different forms of media creating the narrative that you need to be discovered or put on in order to be successful.” Chance tweeted back in 2017, “We wouldn’t seek out deals if mfs knew there were other avenues,”

As more and more artists stand up to the industry leaders, hopefully these changes will solidify for all artists, not just the big names. For now, many smaller artists should look to sign to private, independent labels, ones that respect the creativity and autonomy of the musician. 

With leaders like Kanye, Noname, Chance the Rapper pushing for record label reform, the music industry is progressing positively. However, it is far from perfect. These superstars will continue to challenge the corruption and manipulation of major labels, but it takes awareness from the consumer to create change. Notice who is signed where, search for mixtapes instead of studio albums, and support your favorite artist in indirect ways like buying tour tickets or merchandise. Perhaps, with pressure from both inside the game and out, we can force a fair playing field and fight for musicians’ rights to independence.