How big record labels rip off artists

I get sick and tired of hearing big record labels bleating about how piracy (what we call sharing) is ripping off musicians. If the record labels are to be believed, the music industry is dying and artists are starving in their garrets. Neither statement is true.

One part of the music industry is dying. The big record labels, these are the companies who try to criminalise fans, and the sooner they die the better.

Yes, recording artists do get ripped off. They get ripped off by record companies who pay them a pittance for their artistic endeavours, then try to screw them out of that pittance.

James Taylor is a singer-songwriter. A young James Taylor signed for Warner Brothers in 1969. Since that date, Warner has systematically screwed James Taylor.

A couple of months ago, James Taylor instructed his lawyers to sue Warner for lost earnings.

In 2007, James Taylor initiated an audit of his royalty payments dating back to 2004. In that three-year span, Taylor and his accounting firm, Gelfand, Rennert & Feldman, LLC, found underpayments totaling $1,692,726.

  • The various parties sifted through the audit, and ultimately compromised on an amount totaling $764,056 (some of the topline amount appears to include recategorizations of digital sales as licenses, which would result in higher payments).
  • Warner Bros. subsequently paid only $97,857 of that balance.
  • Warner decided to dispute the remaining $666,199. Of that, the label claimed to owe just $147,278.
  • Of the $147,278, Warner has paid $0 so far, meaning less than $100,000 of the $764,056 agreed upon amount has been paid.
  • During the audit, Taylor’s accounting firm found that Warner Music had grossly exceeded the number of ‘non-royalty bearing’ units in the amount of $47,869. This probably refers to free and promotional copies, or phantom units designed to protect Warner Music from paying actual royalties.
  • Also during the audit, Taylor found that Warner had misallocated customer returns into various royalty and non-royalty bearing buckets. The result was an $800 shortfall.
  • On the release Mudslide Slim, Warner Music applied a royalty rate of 10% and 11%, instead of the 11.5% agreed-upon rate. The shortfall was $869.
  • Warner Bros. Records sold the cassette version of Taylor’s Greatest Hits at an unauthorized budget price. Damages for that action were not specified.
  • Warner underreported sales of Taylor’s Walking Man CD by 50 percent, resulting is a royalty shortfall of $7,142.
  • The audit also found that Warner did not pay Taylor for ‘excess free goods’ associated with the BMG and Columbia House record clubs. The shortfall? $43,420.
  • Warner also failed to report sales on certain compilation albums that featured Taylor’s music, for a shortfall of $10,259.
  • Warner also improperly applied a 25% ‘midline reduction’ on foreign sales of James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, for a shortfall of $18,747.
  • The audit also revealed that Warner Bros. applied ‘insufficient uplift percentages’ on foreign sales, resulting in a shortfall of $3,641.
  • Warner was also found to have paid insufficient mechanical royalties across various albums, for a shortfall of $928.
  • The audit also found ‘miscellaneous’ unpaid royalties beyond these listed amounts, totaling $13,603.
  • In a dispute over the inclusion of Taylor’s music in a compilation called Hits of the 60s and 70s, produced by Madacy Entertainment, Warner Music claimed that this was a ‘manufacturing/custom product deal’ subject to a 2-cent per unit royalty rate. However, the deal with Madacy states that this was a licensing deal, meaning Taylor should have received a 50% share, totalling $1,893. Warner subsequently agreed to liabilities of $388, of which it has not paid.
  • The audit also found that Warner Records had used Taylor’s songs in various compilations without permission, against the contract terms. That would entitle Taylor to 100% of royalties, an amount totaling $84,225.
  • Warner also decided to pay nothing on foreign performances of Taylor’s work, while claiming that its agreements did not cover performances. The agreement between the parties calls for payments on all licensing deals; the total shortfall on this would be $4,603.
  • The audit also found that Warner charged James Taylor for taxes on its profits, but failed to compensate Taylor for various tax credits. That created a shortfall of $518.
  • When Warner decided to reissue two remastered Taylor albums on vinyl, the label charged the manufacturing costs as ‘recording costs’ against Taylor’s royalties. The shorted royalties totaled $3,724.
  • Warner has taken ‘packaging’ and ‘free goods’ deductions from various download, ringtone, and other digital sales, despite the complete absence of either on digital formats.
  • Outside of the license v sale question, Warner was also found to be paying royalties on the wholesale price offered to companies like Apple, not the Suggested List Retail Price (SLRP) as designated in the contract. The difference amounts to $38,310.
  • Warner refused to disclose any sales data from its over-the-air download partnership with Sprint. That forced Taylor’s accountants to forge an estimate of amounts not paid, which reached a minimum of $32,378. Warner has limited its liability to $3,251.
  • Taylor further claims lost interest on these royalties in the amount of $153,884.
  • During the audit, Warner failed supply information related to a number of issues.

In 2010, James Taylor initiated a second audit of his royalty payments dating back to 2007. In that three-year span, Taylor and his accounting firm, Gelfand, Rennert & Feldman, LLC, found underpayments totaling $1,147,591.

  • Warner has not responded to the second audit, though the disputed amount totals $1,048,075 (some of the topline amount appears to include recategorizations of digital sales as licenses, which would result in higher payments). Beyond the sale v licensing complaint, the other concerns from the second audit include:
  • On the physical side, the auditing team found additional royalty discrepancies totaling $2,382.
  • The second audit also found that Warner Music exceeded its 20 percent allowance of ‘free goods,’ which increased the amount of non-royalty units and violated the agreement. The damages assessed from this totaled $56,162.
  • The auditors also found a ‘suspense account’ at Warner Music that held an unspecified amount of Taylor’s royalties. Warner denied such an account existed, and therefore declined to offer any details on which products or payments were included in this alleged account.
  • Despite an agreement to change the percentage after the first audit, Warner Bros. continued to pay an 11 percent royalty on Taylor’s album, Mudslide Slim. The agreed-upon royalty amount was 11.5 percent, resulting in underpayments of $776.
  • The second audit also revealed that Warner had deducted an excessive royalty amount for one of the producers on the album, Gorilla. The producer was paid 2 percent, instead of the agreed-upon 1.5 percent rate, resulting in damages of $742.
  • Warner continued to sell the cassette version of Taylor’s Greatest Hits at an unauthorized budget price, despite agreeing not to do this during the first audit.
  • Additionally, Warner continued to underpay royalties on certain albums by 50 percent, particularly those being removed from the catalog listing. This was in violation of the contracts, and happened despite agreements obtained during the first audit. Underpayments were found to total $2,257.
  • The second audit also found that Warner was still not paying anything on record club sales, particularly for the albums Greatest Hits and Best of James Taylor. This was also despite an expressed agreement during the first audit; damages totalled $4,127.
  • Furthermore, Warner Music continued to withhold royalties on ‘excess free goods’ tied to record clubs, including those associated with Rhino Records. This was despite earlier agreements during the first audit, with damages totaling $20,090.
  • The auditors also found that Taylor was not paid at all on various master synchronization uses, for several shows. The unpaid royalties totalled $35,861.
  • The auditors continued to find Taylor’s songs included in a number of compilation releases, without any permission whatsoever. Furthermore, there were no royalties paid on these releases, nor any explanations offered. Total underpayments are estimated at $10,608.
  • Additionally, Warner did not properly passthrough royalties from SoundExchange, particularly for ‘Ephemeral or Business Services.’ Unpaid: $217.
  • James Taylor was paid a piece of the Napster and Kazaa settlements, but not enough. The audit found that Warner collectively underpaid on both settlements by $42,460.
  • During the second audit period, Warner was also found to be receiving foreign performance income on Taylor’s works, but did not pass any of this income through to the artist. Receipts or documentation was not supplied by Warner, though damages were estimated at $12,903.
  • Also on foreign royalties, during the second period, Warner was also found to be using ‘insufficient uplift percentages,’ resulting in damages of $1,567.
  • Similar to the first period, Warner was found to be deducting taxes against Taylor’s royalty statement, but not applying tax credits received. Damages: $5,251.
  • Also during the second period, Warner was found to be further underpaying on mechanical royalties, with amounts squirreled into a mysterious ‘suspense account’. Estimated damages: $2,242.
  • During the period, Warner Music was found to have undercounted sales of James Taylor’s Greatest Hits by 20,525 units. That resulted in reduced mechanical royalties of $5,603.
  • The accounting firm also uncovered reduced mechanical royalties on a number of albums and releases, totalling $3,034.
  • On top of all that, Warner was found to be applying an additional, 85 percent reduction on mechanical royalties owed, resulting in additional damages of $80,209.
  • The second audit further revealed that Warner Music was systematically underpaying on iTunes sales, specifically by applying royalties to wholesale prices, instead of Suggested List Retail Prices (SLRP). The resulting, unpaid amounts were $106,437.
  • The auditing team also found serious underreporting on digital sales, specifically by comparing Taylor’s royalty statements with Warner’s broader sales reports. Underpayments associated with this underreporting totaled $36,689.
  • Taylor further claims that these non-payments during the period resulted in missed interest income of $54,647.
  • During the second auditing period, Warner failed to provide requesated documents.

James Taylor is not a hick from the sticks. He has the money to employ accountants. If James Taylor is being screwed by Warner, what of the other artists contracted to Warner? If Warner are screwing their artists, what of the other big record labels, are they too screwing their artists?

Next time someone bleats about fans ripping off artists, tell them about Warner ripping off James Taylor.

The major record labels are in the business of screwing their artists. OK the really big names they probably do not screw, for fear the will move to another record label. On the other hand, we can assume James Taylor can afford good lawyers, and yet he still go screwed.

And yet there is a simple solution, or at least there is now, there was not in 1969.

Do not sign to a record label. A twitter account is of more use than a record label.

Yes, you need recording facilities, but do not confuse recording facilities with record label, the two are not the same.

Do not use iTunes, Amazon or Spotify. You get ripped off, though it is more transparent that you are being ripped off.

Produce the best music you can, put love into it. Do not release a youtube video that looks as though a mate has recorded it on his mobile phone (and probably has). Good examples are Shadowboxer and ThePianoGuys.

Use a platform like bandcamp, neither you nor the fans get ripped off, it is easy to listen, to share and to download.

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