Signing Up For Servitude

Aylin Zafar explores the dark side of the music industry, focusing on artists who “have found themselves fighting either to release their music or release themselves from their contracts”:

“The fact is, when any new artist signs their first record deal, they have absolutely no bargaining power,” [entertainment lawyer Paul Fakler] says. Unless you’re an artist that’s built up a following on your own and can gain leverage that way, it can be hard to negotiate a contract that will favor the artist, Fakler says, who calls the terms “pretty much akin to indentured servitutude.” “They’re exclusive contracts, the record company has absolute authority with respect to the decision of whether to release the albums that are turned in or not,” says Fakler. “Most artists are just so happy to get signed, they’ll sign anything.”

High-profile examples also include Bow Wow, Metallica, Big Boi, and Amanda Palmer, among others:

Lupe Fiasco went public with his frustrations against his label, Atlantic Records, in 2010. He delivered speeches and interviews discussing the three-year process to release his third album, Lasers, which he claims was artistically controlled by Atlantic. His fans even organized a protest outside the label’s offices in late 2010. “I am a hostage,” Fiasco told the Chicago Sun-Times the following year. “I gave them what they wanted. If I didn’t, at the end of the day the album wasn’t coming out.”

Prince also famously resorted to writing “Slave” on his face, during the 1995 Brit Awards, to try to drum up noise and be released from his contract with Warner Bros. And while he didn’t have an issue with the label holding back his music, his bold act is an example of the creative lengths some artists go to break their contracts.