What are perpetuity deals in record contracts? And why they're a problem
High profile artist-label disputes are a defining feature of the music industry. Kwame Safo examines arguably the cruelest aspect of many music recording contracts
For many, the music has always been an abstract place. This is often done by design: invested parties protect that elusiveness by employing convoluted language to confuse outsiders and, more importantly, artists within the field.
You may not be familiar with the term 'perpetuity deal' or what it entails, but it is arguably the most cruel aspect which still exists within many music recording contracts, obfuscated by unclear terminology and the attractive advance payment for the music creator.
Contracts are not something that music creators will automatically be familiar with. Self-releasing artists (music creators who make and then subsequently retail their own work) have no need to sign any documentation to action this process, and can be caught unaware by the process if they get signed and their career switches lanes. Of course, contracts should a;ways be scrutinised, and signing anything you don't fully understand or haven't had checked and explained by a lawyer is never advisable — but that can be easier said than the done for fledgling artists, amid the high cost of legal fees, the emotional sway of feeling your music is believed in, and the pressure applied by money men. Often, artists can find themselves unwittingly exploited.
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To amplify the emotive context of this subject, suitable language needs to be employed so that all stakeholders can be invested into the plights of the recording industry, and we don't have an echo chamber of like-minded individuals with similar understandings gatekeeping the process.
There is quite a lot of detail online regarding the intricacies of record labels and the standardised formats an artist can expect to see when signing an agreement. What needs to be explored more so is the wider implications of the perpetuity deal and the ramifications for music creators who, upon signing it, will never ever own their art again.
What is a perpetuity deal?
Record labels can be friend or foe. It largely depends on the owner and subsequent culture running through the organisation. It's not wholly inaccurate that major record labels are home to some of the most unscrupulous business practices within the industry but it doesn't stop there. Independent labels are capable of mimicking the same cutthroat and unethical manoeuvres to secure maximum gain.
A perpetuity deal is a reference to a record deal which aims to own the master recordings (the official original recording of a song, sound or performance often referred to as “masters”) of an artist "in perpetuity". This is not meant in a figurative sense either. The label seeks to own these works literally until the end of your dying days, their dying days, and however long there may be days present. The 'in perpetuity' part of the deal could apply to different aspects of the contract itself to effectively outlast any defined lengths of time in the agreement.
The confusion comes about for some music creators who believed enough time had lapsed within their contract which would normally mean the master recording rights would return to the owner or creator. Normal copyright law lasts for a period of 70 years in the UK.
Forever, forever ever, forever ever?!
Owning a master recording forever or in perpetuity has always felt like a punitive aspect of the final days of an artist's record deal. It's the cruel realization that the toxic end of your relationship with a relentlessly demanding collaborator would in fact not be coming to an end. It is the proverbial kick in the nether regions, that could only hurt after a lifetime of servitude was not rewarded with freedom. Parts like this of the record deal bring context to famous artists, turned whistle blowers, such as Prince (who changed his name to a symbol after falling out with this label and famously compared record contracts to slavery) and more recently Taylor Swift and Raye who at times felt they were not in control of their art or career direction, and unable to capitalise on their life's work.
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Most recently in the United Kingdom, the Copyright (Rights and Remuneration of Musicians, Etc.) Bill put forward by Welsh Labour MP Kevin Brennan — largely to address the inequality of streaming — also contained legislative proposals to provide contract transparency and prevent the existence of perpetuity clauses within record deals. The hope is to put an end to the exploitative nature of this feature in record deals which freezes the momentum of some artists who hope to build on the rewards reaped from the catalogue.
To fully engage on an emotive level the scale of violation and intrusion a long-term contract can have on an artist is the key component to demystifying the problems at hand. Consumers have to align themselves with their favourite musician, who may very well want to release more bodies of work but cannot as it would be swallowed by the machine contractually designated to oversee all output from the artist. The freedom of expression is stifled, as any expression is at the expense of any escape from a passive aggressive proprietor that doesn't have to do much to reap maximum gain.
The further you travel down the socio-economic ladder, the greater the impact of such record deals. Black artists have unsurprisingly felt the brunt of these deals. Making huge artistic contributions to the music landscape and creative infrastructure which makes up the dynamics of hit songs, Black music creators were either going to thrive and be at the apex of lucrative earnings or be exploited in a maddening display of false empowerment. The creation of new millionaires bore the illusion of ownership and control at that space of the music career, but legends such as Anita Baker still even find themselves in legal tussles based on unethical business practices.
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While record contracts often maximise the profitable outcomes of labels, why has ethical standards for the actual artists become debatable, when surely it should be a given? It shows how far down the moral chute we have fallen as an industry. Artists’ needs have arguably become an ignored aspect of the business. Artists and their art are to be exploited, the recording industry just has to merely choose now which facet it wants to exploit.
The recording industries lacklustre desire to adapt itself to the ever-changing needs and requirements of the modern musician has meant revolution from below was almost a certainty. In more recent music news, electronic artist Four Tet's cries for assistance were met with empathy and compassion from a much more intuitive post-COVID industry. Although much of Four Tet’s dispute with the independent label Domino Records reads as a streaming debate, a lot of the circumstances are borne from the unfair control laid out via contractual obligations. You could argue the squeeze on the pockets amongst musicians, in the midst of other social issues around racism and misogyny, has made the collective consciousness much more acute.
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The push now however, is to challenge the archaic systems of operation and build anew. The cynic in me feels that much of this is tied to the etymology around the words used in the recording industry. 'Master' and 'slave' recording can still be found as industry terminology within contracts. As much as it could be an accurate description of the control dynamic at play, adding the word perpetuity adds even greater insult. Master is something which indelibly has set out to retain control forever. Maybe working from here, is a good place to change the issues around contracts.
Details on Music Copyright Explained can be found here at the Intellectual Property Office
Kwame Safo is a DJ, broadcaster, label head, producer and music consultant. Follow him on Twitter here