This is a guest editorial by Mark Tavern, an artist manager, consultant, educator, administrator, and arts advocate with more than 20 years of music business experience.
Houston-based rapper Megan Thee Stallion took to Instagram Live this past weekend to air a grievance with her label 1501 Certified Entertainment. She said she was told “she can’t drop no music” because as soon as she suggested that they “renegotiate [her] contract, everything went left, like, it just all went bad, it all went left.”
Meg wasn’t forthcoming with many details about her situation in that video, only saying that “when I signed, I didn’t really know what was in my contract. I was young. I was like 20, and I didn’t know everything that was in that contract.”
Speculation mounted as to whether this story would be another one of an artist who either didn’t know the terms of their contract, didn’t/couldn’t hire an attorney, or was being taken advantage of by their label.
Forget all that speculation now: as it turns out, she figured out what was in that contract, she hired an attorney, and she’s not going to be taken advantage of.
If there’s anything to learn since that video came out, it’s that Megan Thee Stallion does not play. Here’s why:
First, she figured out she signed a terrible deal. While the contract has yet to be made public, some terms have come out. Among them are that she signed a deal that provided for a 60 / 40 split of recording revenue and a 70 / 30 split on everything else. And after all of that, she went out of pocket on recording costs and received only a paltry $10,000 advance. (Note that 1501 has disputed this and claimed her live performance earnings—which they get a piece of—are being withheld.)
Second, despite whatever previous counsel she may or may not have had, she’s now hired attorney Richard S. Busch. Busch is the heavy-hitting lawyer who represented Marvin Gaye’s Estate in its copyright infringement suit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell over “Blurred Lines.” That victory won his clients a $7.3M judgment. It’s clear that Busch, like Megan, plays to win.
Third—and most importantly—Megan’s already won the first round in her fight against 1501’s owner, Carl Crawford, the MLB left-fielder who started the label after retiring from baseball. The terms are stunning, even for terrible production deals. She called her contract “unconscionable,” and as a result, a Federal Court granted a temporary restraining order in her favor.
It’s not uncommon for labels to sign artists when they’re young. It’s not uncommon for labels to sign artists before they have a team. It’s not uncommon for labels to sign artists before they have no distribution. It’s not uncommon for shady labels to get away with such tactics and bleed artists dry. Contracts can often have terrible terms, and artists sign them all the time. But as long as those terms don’t require either party to break the law, the contract can remain enforceable.
What makes this initial victory such a big win for Meg (and for other recording artists) is that the court is letting her release the music. [Editor's Note: Megan is releasing a multi-track project on Friday, March 6.] Ordinarily, the question of ownership is clear. Production deals like this lock up the artist’s recordings and take away their control. In any other case, this would weigh against the artist: if they gave away their rights, any release of the music (even a sanctioned leak) would harm their label, not them.
But 1501 apparently did not take full ownership. As a result, Meg could show the court that her plans were in jeopardy because of 1501’s resistance. And by granting the restraining order, the court suggested that the deal she signed was so bad that she might still win when the case goes to trial.
The importance of this ruling cannot be overstated: despite it being only a temporary ruling, the court suggested that Meg might be able to void her contract. Imagine that: an artist finally able to show that a label has too much control, their terms are terrible, and it matters the artist was young, or perhaps ill-advised, and without a lawyer.
Megan Thee Stallion had her day in court on Monday, and it was a good day for all recording artists.
Mark Tavern is an artist manager, consultant, educator, administrator, and arts advocate with more than twenty years of music business experience. In addition to running his own management company, he currently teaches music business at LaGuardia Community College and before that at the Institute of Audio Research. Prior to 2012, Tavern worked at major record companies including Universal Music Group, SONY Music Entertainment, and BMG Entertainment. As an A&R Administrator with such labels as Island, Def Jam, RCA, and RCA Victor, he took part in more than 200 recordings, a dozen Broadway cast albums, and numerous reissue projects, including the GRAMMY®-winning 24-CD box set The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition. Visit his website for insider tips about the music business, and subscribe to his newsletter to get a free ebook: Listen Up! A Simple Guide To Getting Heard On Spotify.