What Kanye West’s Contract Dispute Can Teach Young Artists About Protecting Their Legacy — And Their Money

03.08.19 4 months ago

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If Kanye West retired today and never made another record he would have one of the most impactful catalogs in music history. But unfortunately for Kanye, he can’t retire. That’s what the mercurial artist and his legal team are alleging in a lawsuit against his labels Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam Records, their parent company Universal Music Group, along with music publishing giant EMI.

The Hollywood Reporter reports that Kanye is seeking money that he believes he’s owed and a “transfer of property” on the grounds that “EMI has unjustly earned millions of dollars by tethering Mr. West’s songwriting efforts for an unlawful term.” Kanye signed his initial record contract in 2003, as an aspiring artist so notoriously driven to succeed that at one point he let two different management teams take 20% a piece from his proceeds, according to his onetime manager/production mentor Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie. His laser-focused determination was admirable but shortsighted. That contract he signed contains the following clause that Kanye is calling “servitude:”

“At no time during the Term will you seek to retire as a songwriter, recording artist or producer or take any extended hiatus during which you are not actively pursuing Your musical career in the same basic manner as You have pursued such career to date.”

That clause essentially states that Kanye can never stop making music. His legal team is attempting to get out of the deal by evoking California’s seven-year rule, or Labor Code Section 2855, which limits personal service contracts to a seven-year maximum. Given that Kanye signed the deal in 2003, he not only wants out of the deal, but to be paid retroactively for publishing from 2010, when he claims the deal should have expired. Acts like Courtney Love, 30 Seconds To Mars, and Rita Ora have used the rule to get out of their own restrictive contracts. EMI is looking to circumvent Kanye’s suit with a countersuit claiming that the contract is legal in New York.

Kanye is so protective of his art that he once ran away from “authorities” with the reel for his “Jesus Walks” video on an episode of MTV’s Punk’d prank series, but this struggle for what is his is no laughing manner. Kanye has always advocated for his art, but he should have also been as ardent about advocating for his rights as a recording artist. He put everything he had into his music, but his contractual negligence could have sacrificed the rights to that music for the rest of his life.

Music publishing is the golden goose for any artist; having control of your publishing allows you to control who gets to use your music commercially — and reap the benefits. Kanye’s extensive catalog gets play in everything from commercials to sporting arenas, so he could be owed a huge windfall of backpay. Many of the previous major label acts who evoked the seven-year rule settled out of court, but they likely didn’t get the money that Kanye could be owed.

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