For many unsigned artists, getting signed to a major label record deal is a dream come true. For many signed artists, however, that same major label record deal is the cause of headaches and nightmares. With that in mind, allow me to explain why, just recently, I bought myself out of my record deal with Sony Music and bought back the rights to my music.
I started making music at the age of 14. I taught myself how to engineer, use Photoshop, and how to market on social media in my later teenage years. I had no network in the industry and couldn’t afford to pay people to do the work for me, so the self-learning approach was my first-class ticket to launching my career. After releasing some music independently and building a following across Europe, I signed to a German subsidiary of Sony Music in late 2017.
I was honored to be among the first English-speaking rappers to get signed to a major record label in Germany. With this privilege came other unforeseen gifts: I opened up a new market, setting a precedent for other homegrown talents with international potential and represented an access point for British and American artists to the third-largest music market in the world.
Obviously, at the time, the idea of getting signed directly by the head of the label felt amazing. Being the first and only of my kind on the roster, I felt unique. My project would get a real opportunity to thrive and shine, I thought. However, not too long after the initial signing, my project was handed down to a junior A&R (artists and repertoire), who also acted as my product manager when my initial signing partner left the company abruptly.
In the months that followed, I got a more experienced manager to take over, whom I had known from my time living and networking in the music industry in the UK. My new manager quickly realized things were not going as they should and started a conversation with the top-level employees of the label to voice our frustrations over the lack of support we were receiving thus far.
The issue? To compete internationally, we required bigger budgets, marketing commitments of the licensing partners in the respective territories, and fewer restrictions placed upon sharing my music and videos on the Internet. The copyright management system and communication issues between label partners would further complicate releases. The domestic label focused efforts on servicing the more profitable home territory, while maintaining ownership of global exploitation rights, therefore, locking out non-Sony labels who wanted to get on board for their respective country. Meanwhile, other Sony labels abroad did not want to take on the project.
Consequently, to gain traction and exposure rather than being halted by the set-up, we played every gig we could get our hands on, touring for two years non-stop. We went from New York City to China, selling out tours in Europe, and playing festivals and small shows alike. Whenever we got my music in front of consumers around the world, they instantly became fans.
We forged a strategy focusing on our existing fans to foster an organic and evergrowing global community. We partnered with brands in our network, but also through Sony’s brand department, to finance fan-value driven marketing campaigns, music sync placements, and activations to amplify the reach of my music and brand. We built a real-time voting heating map (which we base our touring on), organized meet-ups ahead of the shows for those who came, and had a group chat via Discord, an app I take part in to keep my fan relationship as personal as possible. We did everything.
The culmination of all of our efforts led to us working with some of the most prestigious brands in the world. We secured a sync placement for a global World Cup ad; “Bury Me Alive” went No. 1 on the US Shazam trend charts; we landed another Colors session, which garnered over 1 million views within a few days; we covered Forbes magazine in Germany, as well as the 30 under 30 list.
After the first term of the contract was fulfilled by releasing two EPs and a handful of singles instead of one EP and an album, we had several boardroom meetings as the record label wanted to exercise the first option. And although there was an improvement, particularly on the brand department side of the label, the essential basis of collaboration between “them” and “us” was still not up to par: releasing and marketing the music.
My manager and I wanted to officially take things into our own hands by receiving budgets and a change in the royalty share, so we could reap a more significant percentage of the income, according to the work we contributed. The only way to do this was to ask for distribution under Sony’s umbrella company rather than remaining with the subsidiary label that signed me. We couldn’t come to an agreement and we did not want to continue under the old constellation, so we offered to buy back my entire catalog and therefore terminate all standing agreements.
In terms of monetary exchange between the label and myself, I ended up paying more for buying back my catalog than I received in total from my advance. Only a fraction of my total net-sales counted towards my recoupment. Even with having 45 million-plus streams, I was, according to the last statement we received at the end of 2019, still in debt to the label. All the revenue the record label generated in two years through brand, live, and sync deals did not count towards recoupment.
The exit negotiation was led by my manager, Line Rindvig, and supported by my lawyer. It took about six months to complete everything. Exiting and buying back the rights to my catalog was an intimidating, stressful, Herculian process.
However, ownership is the key to wealth, be it investments into brick-and-mortar property or owning your intellectual property. With every song we release, this IP increases in value and is an asset I will be able to one day pass on to my kids, and they will one day be able to pass on to their children.
Ultimately, I am thankful for all the work contributed by the individuals at Sony, who worked on my project and genuinely believed in me. You know who you are, and I am forever grateful.
And to my team, this is the beginning of forever.