Here’s the Truth Behind the Underpaid Producers Controversy
We spoke to five producers to gain insight.
Over the last few weeks, the conversation about producers being unfairly compensated has become a hot topic. One day into the New Year, an interview with Eric “E. Dan” Dan — one of three producers that makes up the Pittsburgh-based music production and engineering team ID Labs — went viral after the producer discussed how Atlantic Records will take an album and label it a “street album,” “commercial mixtape” or “compilation album” to avoid paying producers their full rate.
He used Wiz Khalifa’s Khalifa project as an example and explained, “The Khalifa album, I don’t know what they called it, a ‘street album?’ They came up with some really clever name that essentially meant, ‘Everyone involved, you’re going to get paid half what you normally do.’ I’ve seen it happen often over the last few years. Anything to save a buck for these labels.” E. Dan would later clarify some of his thoughts in a open letter sent to DJ Booth, stating, “I knew what I was getting into before it was put together.”
However, the match was struck and other producers like Rook from J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Benny Cassette, DJ Burn One, Marvel Alexander and Sonny Digital took to Twitter to discuss the hurdles producers have to go through to receive fair compensation.
Producers expressing their displeasures about labels and non-payment isn’t new — the topic has been discussed before. However, with the birth of social media, the artists behind the boards now have a platform to publicly voice their grievances to a wide audience. Just recently, it was revealed that TM88 of the Atlanta-based production team 808 Mafia hasn’t seen a dime from Lil Uzi Vert’s massive hit “XO Tour Llif3,” a song that went 4x platinum and peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Chuck Inglish also called out Rick Ross, claiming that the MMG head never paid him for Stalley’s “Party Heart” beat from 2012.
In the past, Metro Boomin called out APG (Artist Publishing Group), a division of Atlantic Records, for being vultures, urging other producers to stay away from them because they will “steal your soul.” Sonny Digital in particular voiced his opinion last June about how he wants to start a union for producers.
In a time where some of the biggest acts in hip-hop are producers, it would appear things are changing for the better. Indeed, Mike WiLL Made-It, London On Da Track, Zaytoven and Metro Boomin have their own imprints in partnerships with major labors, albums and tours. However, what may look like promising times for the men crafting the hits, could only be best news for these top one percent. HYPEBEAST spoke to five producers — Sonny Digital, Marvel Alexander, Digital Nas, Statik Selektah, Thelonious Martin — to gain insight on the gravity of the issue at hand. Whose fault is it?
Are producers, in general, being unfairly compensated?
Statik Selektah: Definitely, since I got into the game, everybody has been getting paid less. But that comes with the part of people not selling as many records as they used to. Especially streaming because obviously there is not going to be as much money coming in. I’ve come from different perspectives from a lot of these guys. A lot of these dudes having the conversation now are like SoundCloud producers or they came up through the internet. I didn’t, I came from the DJ perspective. So I think I got an upper hand when it comes to the playing field with these labels because they don’t really want to piss off the radio DJs. [Laughs] Everybody has definitely been ripped off a couple of times but as long as you doing your business correctly from the get go and as long as you got a good lawyer; I think the lawyer comes into it and a lot of these kids don’t know what they are doing on that side of things.
Sonny Digital: I don’t think producers are unfairly compensated right now though. I understand what people are saying. Right now, producers… it’s a battle that they have going on; they are getting paid for mixtapes, some of them. When you’re a producer and you have a brand and a name, you’re going to get paid for your price. When you’re working your way up, you’re going to be working your way up [with pay] too.
Marvel Alexander: Absolutely, I think producers are kind of getting the short end of the stick in most cases, especially in royalty percentage. What labels do, they usually give you three points on the record. I feel like they use the term ‘points’ to hide that they are giving you only three percent of royalties, especially in the new era where most of the music income is generated through royalties. A lot of times, it depends on the artist. Most artists are only getting 15, to on the higher end of things, 22 percent. If you can leverage some sort of partnership deal, that’s amazing but it’s very rare. So you see the stories like Pharrell with “Happy” only getting $3,000 from Pandora and stuff like that. It’s not because Pandora isn’t paying out, it’s because people that are involved with the distribution of the record are taking the majority of the money not necessarily getting a low pay cut. Because there is a lot of money in streaming, especially when you doing high numbers. So, I think the producers basically get scraps compared to the artists.
Thelonious Martin: To an extent, I feel like a lot of this attention on artists that are getting popular nowadays is going towards the artist and not enough producers are getting enough credit. Now granted we got the Metro Boomins of the world and those guys are really gaining a lot of attention and I’m happy for it, but it’s off the simple fact that he’s a producer leading and dropping a project. So for cats like Metro and setting the bar high that shows producers are important, those guys are critical. But to hear so many stories of cats not getting a single dime off of these popular records, it’s kind of scary. Producers are definitely getting under-compensated.
What does paying your dues mean to you?
Digital Nas: In my opinion, I think that means like give free beats away and work your way up to build your price up.
Statik Selektah: Paying dues is basically doing a bunch of shit you don’t want to do, the opposite of stroking your ego. Putting your pride aside and doing what you have to do to make it happen, putting that 10,000, 100,000 hours in to really get to where you want to be at. A lot of people don’t really want to go get coffee or sweep the floor, you know what I mean? That’s part of the gig coming up, especially the studios, radio-side, anything really. Everybody just want to be the star and make money but that’s not how it works.
“Paying dues is basically doing a bunch of shit you don’t want to do, the opposite of stroking your ego.”
Sonny Digital: For me, what we did was putting in [work] on all those mixtapes and stuff. Doing a whole bunch of work, not necessarily meant to be free but it mostly building relationships though. We put in work, we did mixtapes, all the tapes for free. That is when we put in all that work.
Marvel Alexander: I think it is learning how to produce and learning how to be a good producer because that takes a lot of time. A lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of passion to sit there in front of a program and learn how to express yourself through it and learn how to express yourself so that someone takes a liking to it. I think that’s paying dues. Taking the time and effort to learn a craft.
What can an artist do to avoid being inadequately compensated and protected?
Digital Nas: I think it’s all about the relationship. I feel like producers need to establish more relationships with the artists they are working with instead of just sending beats out then being like, ‘Wow, yo I didn’t get compensated.’ Stuff will start being a lot more smooth if relationships are strong.
Statik Selektah: You got to have the right lawyer and good management. I went years and years without management and even a good lawyer; I used to handle contracts on my own and it was definitely corners that they would cut. It wouldn’t have happened if I had a good lawyer behind me. Now I’m proud to have the best. Coming up you got to just learn and fall on your face a couple times to really understand it.
Sonny Digital: You gotta kind of know where you at, honestly. You’re going to get paid what you supposed to get paid but then again there will be people who will try and jerk you. But a good lawyer and a good manager will help. For the most part, if you getting like a $1,000 or $2,500 a beat, that means you probably a producer that is on the way up. Someone probably not jipping you, that’s probably what it is.
Thelonious Martin: Producers can definitely learn and know their rights in terms of being an artist; knowing your royalty rates and splits and making sure you have your split sheets correct and the business side of things. Knowing this, you’re least likely to be subjected to poor pay. Having a lawyer, especially in this climate, that’s something not really talked about. Simply just being out there in the world and the industry without any kind of protection or someone looking out for your betterment of your work, you’re kind of leaving yourself out to dry.
Do labels purposely look for ways to not pay producers?
Digital Nas: I would hope not, I wouldn’t even want to think about anything like that. I think they just so backed up with so many records. Then again, I still think it’s all about the relationships.
Statik Selektah: I don’t think that’s necessarily it. I just think they do everything they can to not spend money because they don’t want to lose money on everything. It is not just with producers, it’s everything. Like people are losing jobs because of how much money they used on projects and it’s not coming back. It’s not a personal thing where it’s ‘let’s screw over this producer.’ If you’re doing your business correctly, you don’t have to worry about that. I think the issues going on right now is all these new cats come into the game and they don’t know what they are doing and they are being taken advantage of. At the end of the day, it’s a business — if you go to a yard sale and try to buy something, the person selling it is going to try and get as much money they can from you. It’s on the opposite extreme of that; labels are just trying to save money.
“I think the system that the label operates on is very unfair to the creators of music.”
Marvel Alexander: I think labels go out of their way to not pay everybody because everyone is kind of getting shafted. No one is getting the same amount of money the label is getting. I think the system that the label operates on is very unfair to the creators of music. Even the artists, they might get more than the producers, but they still getting shorted on a lot of things. Labels are leveraging deals where streaming companies are not paying the artists who are basically giving them that money. I don’t know the specifics but I know companies like Spotify have been giving labels million-dollar advances on streaming revenue and they don’t split that up with the artists. They pocket it and pay the artists accordingly to their contracts. Without music there is no advance and without the artists there is no music. Labels do a lot of weird stuff. They package a lot of stuff into your budget that you may not have used. They really do their best to get over on you. I think that needs to change and the only way it changes is if people are more aware of it. Artists I worked with have the mentality that the label is going to pay for this and that and take care of this and that, but in all actuality, you’re taking care of it. The mentality going into the music industry just needs to change.
Thelonious Martin: I don’t think they purposely don’t pay producers as much as producers not protecting themselves. If I got to a store and they forget to charge me for items, I’m not running back in the store and yelling, ‘Hey you guys didn’t charge me for this piece of fruit.’ I’m acting like nothing never happened and happily moving on with my day. So if you go to the label and you forget to fill out paperwork, of course they’re not going to pay you and put it towards something else. Protect yourself by knowing what’s going on. It’s not really the label’s fault. Now granted if they hide some stuff from you that will prevent you from going on that’s a different ball game. But if you know you got a song coming out with such and such label and you haven’t signed all your paperwork and holding up things, that’s going to be your fault.
Is this situation overblown or understated?
Digital Nas: I think it’s definitely understated. This is a real serious issue going on. Imagine that you’re working a job and a year goes by and you still haven’t got paid. What if that was happening to you at your job? You got to think about it like that. I feel like [this issue] is going to get fixed this year though.
Sonny Digital: I think with the labels it’s a little blown out. This ain’t nothing new. I understand it though, I understand the game. Not saying that’s right though. They are a major company and not trying to lose money. So they are trying to save as much as they can. I understand [what’s happening] because people are getting a new insight on what’s going on. Everything that’s a ‘mixtape’ is an album now. I just got hit up about some old stuff that people are putting on iTunes and streaming sites. But now they gotta pay me. My whole thing is relying off the relationships, I can make that stretch longer than the money. And that’s what really work for me; focus on my relationships and people that I know that can put me in the right places.
Marvel Alexander: I think it’s understated big time. Just going back to the royalties percentage, I think three percent is a ridiculous number for someone who contributed to half of the song. It’s a beat and it’s lyrics. The fact you get three percent of that is absurd to me. If you ask for four percent, your looked at as crazy. I think that narrative is really bizarre to me. It’s that way because that’s the way the business has been operating for so long. Your A&R is making more than your artist. The music industry is so secretive and I think the reason why is because they’re doing all these unethical things. When you have a job you have a detailed breakdown of the work you put in and what you get paid, the rules to having a job; they take the taxes out, they take the 401K out. With the music industry, these details aren’t as readily available to the average producer and artist and that’s how people end up in these horrible deals. I took business in college, the music industry doesn’t operate as the normal business standards as everyone else and I think that needs to change because people are receiving what they should.
Thelonious Martin: I think it’s not overblown but more so it’s finally coming to light. Beforehand this wasn’t talked about. But with social media people are now giving examples and producers a platform to even speak about it. Producers finally have a platform, other than an occasional interview or two, to voice, ‘Hey, these situations are unfair’ or ‘these situations aren’t the best.’
Is a union possible? Why?
Statik Selektah: I don’t know. A lot of these dudes are undercutting their shit. I don’t know if people will get together but if the right person puts it together, you never know.
Sonny Digital: Yeah, it’s just kind of getting everyone on the same page. It’s not going to happen anytime soon. We got to get other people on the same page. Enough people but it’s possible though.
“The music industry is so secretive and I think the reason why is because they doing all these unethical things.”
Marvel Alexander: I think most things are possible. I think a producer union is possible and it’s probably going to happen sooner than later. I don’t think it should be for just producers, it should be for artists in general. We don’t have anything that protects our rights and I think that needs to change. I believe artists are also being treated unfairly. Everyone is getting the short end of the stick.
Thelonious Martin: In a sense, yes, if we have a unified front. Upon a unified front people are able to succeed. If you have all these different people voicing the same thing but from different angles and different volumes, there are some people getting their voices heard and others who aren’t. There will be people who left out of the conversation. If we had a unified front in getting people on the same boat, making sure everyone has what they need to survive, then that can happen.
Have you ever been apart of a bad deal? Tell us about it.
Digital Nas: I haven’t signed any deals. I do have some songs that I didn’t get paid for but I usually just fuck with niggas off the love.
Statik Selektah: One of the funniest deals I was ever a part of is someone talked me into signing a deal for a certain project; it was a label. That same person who talked me into the deal, took 20 percent of the advance and then invoice the label a $5,000 consulting fee that got recouped from the album. Some real scumbag shit. You got to catch stuff like that in the paperwork and I caught it. I made him reverse the consulting shit because that’s some bullshit. There’s a difference in trying to save money and being a scumbag and there are a lot of scumbags in this industry so you gotta watch out.
Sonny Digital: I think I got paid for like everything but if I didn’t, it’s not something I was really worried about. I’ve done did bad deals, not for specific songs but as far as publishing stuff. The only thing that be a headache is the process of getting your money. Just going lawyer to lawyer and y’all all have to sign off on everything. It’s just a whole bunch of back and forth. But once you get deep into the game and start making money, and start stacking up, it won’t really matter when that money coming in. It just stack on top of another. At first it be slow but it will eventually be constant.
Thelonious Martin: It’s not really an attribute of the artist but more so the climate of music. The Drive In Theatre with Curren$y, I did half that project and I remember having a conversation with him about skits. It was something I was involved in and had hands on. It was put out on DatPiff, this was before streaming was taken seriously. He goes on tour with it, he was getting $10,000, $15,000 a show; I didn’t get a dime for it. It wasn’t anyone fault, you can’t set up royalties when it’s on DatPiff. Even Polo Sporting Goods, same thing, that’s a classic project released initially on DatPiff. Everyone has their lessons they have to go through or situations where they learned from, which is why doing split sheets is so important to me. It’s no ill will or malicious towards the artists that I’ve done the projects, it was the climates at the times. You’re doing mixtapes with your homie and it’s going up on DatPiff and you’re 20, 21 years old, no one is really thinking that far ahead. Now, for the upcoming producers around that same age, it’s more information and different websites where it handles all the splits and do all that stuff for you where you don’t have to have all the headache.