On Valentine's Day of 2014, De La Soul gave all of their albums away for free, collecting email addresses from fans and sending them a Dropbox link full of music. This wasn't only an act of kindness, but also a move of desperation and upset.
As New York Times reports, De La Soul’s music has been in “digital limbo.” Aside from 2004’s The Grind Date, none of the legendary trio's albums are available on any streaming services or digital retail outlets. Their seminal debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, currently resides in the Library of Congress yet cannot be (legally) found online.
In the NYT story, representatives from Warner Music Group - which bought ownership of the albums from Tommy Boy in 2002 - and other music industry professionals blame sampling issues. When De La's older albums were originally recorded, as far back as 1989, sample clearances were rarely obtained, and samples that were cleared may not have accounted for formats beyond CD, vinyl and cassette. A certain legal phrase ("now known or hereafter discovered") should safeguard the group's already cleared samples for digital streaming and purchasing, but if the phrase wasn't present on the original recording contracts it could require a considerable amount of renegotiation on Warner's part.
A spokesperson for Rhino, a subsidiary of Warner that deals with its back catalog, admitted that the situation was frustrating for all parties but reinforced the difficulty at hand.
“De La Soul is one of hip-hop’s seminal acts, and we’d love for their music to reach audiences on digital platforms around the world, but we don’t believe it is possible to clear all of the samples for digital use, and we wouldn’t want to release the albums other than in their complete, original forms. We understand this is very frustrating for the artists and the fans; it is frustrating for us, too.”
In the piece, Tommy Boy Records founder Tom Silverman stated that Warner should have contact information for the copyright holders, and that cutting a deal “shouldn’t be that hard, especially if you’re fair and logical and say, ‘Let me pay you the same percentage that we’ve always paid you on physical and digital, too, so you can make that much money.”
While we’re used to hearing about how streaming services don't compensate artists fairly, De La Soul and their representation spoke candidly in the story about how not having their music online has hurt them financially. They said they have even offered to do the groundwork for sample clearances on their own.
“When I try my best to tap into the psyche of record execs and how they think, they know there’s some value — that’s why they’re not letting go,” De La Soul member Dave said. “But on this side of the fence, you’re like, ‘I’d appreciate you don’t wait until one of us die to do this.’ Can I enjoy some of the fruits of my own labor, while I’m alive?”
The bright side to this tale is that the group's free album giveaway helped De La Soul build a groundswell of support and fan connections. Their upcoming album, The Anonymous Nobody, was funded by crowdfunding through Kickstarter: instead of getting the money from a record label and not owning the entirety of the record, the trio raised over $600,000 from fans and subsequently own their own masters.
A quick look at the album's track listing and it appears they’re not taking any shortcuts, either. The LP stands at 17 tracks, with guest appearances by Usher, Snoop Dogg and more.
Best of all? The new album is mostly sample-free. Four songs have already been released, and the full project is set for release on August 26. For the first time in forever, De La Soul be able to do everything on their own terms. Finally.
By William E. Ketchum III, follow him at @WEKetchum