On Thursday, rapper Lil Yachty signed a publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing, according to HDD. The deal was constructed by Jody Gerson, the Chairman and CEO of UMP, along with Walter Jones, the company's VP of Creative, and Brandra Ringo, an A&R for Universal Music Publishing Group.
Considering Yachty didn't know who owned or handled his publishing as recently as December 2016, it's encouraging to hear that the 19-year-old is taking steps toward upping his business game.
Although, when I first read about the deal, the details of which have not been disclosed by the artist or UMP, my first thought was: Wait, did Yachty just sign over his publishing to the same parent company (Universal) that owns his music?
Now, before I jump into explaining why that question matters so much, especially to an artist like Lil Yachty, it's important for our readers to understand that, since I am not privy to the exact specifications of Yachty's record contract or his newly-inked pub deal, I will be presenting my commentary in the most general terms. While my analysis certainly applies to Yachty, its intent is to serve as a broad overview of the industry system that affects all artists.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let's begin...
Lil Yachty is currently signed to Quality Control, a successful Atlanta-based independent label owned by Pierre “Pee” Thomas and Kevin “Coach K” Lee that is also home to hitmaking trio Migos. In May 2015, Quality Controlsigned a "joint venture" partnership with Capitol Music Group in tandem with Motown Records—two labels under the umbrella held by Universal Music Group, the same parent company under which UMPG operates. In a press release, the deal was categorized as a "wide-ranging agreement," which includes Universal Music Distribution or CMG’s Caroline handling the label's releases.
While it's unclear if Capitol/Motown have any ownership over Yachty's sound recordings or if they are merely serving as a distributor for Quality Control's stable of artists, it's important to note the difference between composition (the writing) and sound recording (the actual song) and who owns and represents each.
"The composition, made by the writers, is typically represented by a publisher. The sound recording, made by the performing artist and producer, is typically represented by a label," explained Budi Voogt in his 2017 article, "The Indie Guide to Music Copyright and Publishing."
So, is it a good idea to sign a percentage of your publishing (composition) over to a company that operates under the same umbrella as your record company (sound recording)?
According to DrewsThatDude, a veteran producer who has worked with Lil Wayne, ScHoolboy Q and Jeezy, among others, there is an equal number of advantages and disadvantages for an artist who chooses to turn over a percentage of their publishing to the publishing arm of their record company.
"I would say it's an advantage because people are always going to invest time and money in things they have a stake in," he explained.
OK, so by signing a pub deal with a record label, an artist is essentially providing that label with extra motivation to work records on their behalf. Smart. But given that most standard publishing deals require the artist to sign over 35-50% of their publishing, doesn't that relationship give too much power to the label?
"Yeah most definitely, it gives way too much power 'cause they own the recordings and now they own so much of the record—it's basically theirs," said Drew. "But because it's basically their record, they tend to push a lot of those guys more for the income."
Obviously, no two publishing deals have the same fine print, but in general, handing over too much control and too much power to any one entity is never a good idea—especially when it comes to the long-term health of your bank account. For younger artists, like Yachty, who don't have business acumen, it's difficult to say no to an advance payment, which is typically made up front and allows the artist to immediately deposit a check.
"As much as you wanna own all your pub, when a company is dangling $300k for 25%, people say 'hell yeah' cause they think they're gonna be stars forever," Drew continued. "When the lights ain't on you or when you're indie or underground [artist], that's when every percentage point matters."
So, how does an artist determine whether or not it's a good idea to sign over a percentage of their publishing to the same company that owns their masters? How do they balance the benefit of having a company work harder on their behalf, generating more opportunities for immediate income, versus restricting that same company from having too much skin in the game, which should allow for a bigger pay day down the line?
"I think administration deals are the future and present," said Drew. "[Basically], take a piece of my income as a payment for the service [you're providing me now], but don't touch the publishing."
Given that music publishing may be the single most important part of an artist's career, and also the most misunderstood, it's up to each and every artist to educate themselves on the ins and outs of the business, as well as to determine whether or not they want to play the short game (I want to make as much money as I can right here, right now) or the long game (I am comfortable being poor right now because I know I'll be wealthy in the future).