Music

The Migos Lawsuit Seems Like Another Cautionary Tale Of Music Industry Exploitation

Two years ago, Breakfast Club personality DJ Envy reminded Migos members of a 2013 nightclub show they did for him for just $3,000. Quavo noted that he didn’t remember the show. Quality Control Music Co-Founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas clarified that the performance was an “early” occasion in which fellow founder Kevin “Coach K” Lee was getting the group booked for “promo.” Breakfast Club co-host Charlamagne jokingly replied, “so K told y’all it was for free but he took the $3,000.”

Everyone laughed, and the conversation meandered without explanation. But after the trio’s recent lawsuit alleging financial malpractice by their former lawyer — who is also a QC lawyer — that exchange isn’t so funny in hindsight. There’s trouble in paradise after the Migos’ suit and Cardi B distancing herself from QC, who once acted as her management. Apparently, Migos are just the latest act who didn’t realize they were in a bad deal until way after the ink was dry.

Variety reported last week that Migos filed a lawsuit accusing their attorney Damien Granderson of professional malpractice and unjust enrichment. They’re seeking “millions of dollars” in compensation from Granderson and his firm.

The complaint alleges that Granderson saw the then-teenagers as “easy targets,” and didn’t disclose that he represented their label QC, which was a “glaring conflict of interest.” The extensive lawsuit, filed by their new attorney Bryan Freedman, claims Granderson “abused his position of trust as Migos’ fiduciary from the moment he was retained as Migos’ lawyer,” and locked them into a contract amendment that prevented them “from ever being free of paying excessive compensation to QCM, from ever being signed to any other record label, and from ever obtaining negotiating leverage to secure reasonable terms in connection with the distribution of its musical recordings.”

Granderson helped the group negotiate its (now expired) 2014 distribution deal with 300 Entertainment, as well as an exit deal with 300 that allowed them to sign to Capitol Records in 2017. The lawsuit claims that Granderson withheld the full scope of the Capitol deal, showing Migos a contract that said one thing when the reality was that QC was receiving “far-above-industry-norm compensation” from their proceeds.

Days after the lawsuit, Cardi B, Offset’s wife, tweeted “I don’t have no managers. NONE AT ALL! My lawyer handle my business.” Cardi is signed to Atlantic Records, but signed to QC for management in 2018, when the label and her husband were on better terms.

Neither Granderson nor his firm have replied to Migos’ accusations, but Pee called the claims “nonsense” on Instagram, adding that “it is unfortunate that the same people that we have worked hard for, provided opportunities for, and championed for are now alleging that we have participated in any kind of immoral or unfair business practices…especially while we are dealing with the death of [QC rapper Marlo],” who was shot and killed earlier this month. Pee noted, “I love my artists and I love my team. Everyone has their own lawyers,” but also said, “I understand in this business that you are not always going to end with the people you started with. I say that to say, I am not forcing anybody to be in business with us that has a problem and cannot communicate and does not want to work as a unit.”

It looks like QC may be set to go on without their onetime flagship act. It was the group’s initial run of high profile singles — leading up to the mammoth “Bad And Boujee” — that helped the label ascend from a local indie into the actualization of Billboard’s 2015 commendation as “the most important hip-hop label in America.” By 2018, their roster of Migos, Lil Yachty, City Girls, Lil Baby (with proximity to Cardi B through management) was one of the most powerful crews in the game. Pee bought Offset and Takeoff luxury vehicles for their birthdays. On the surface, everything was lovely, and it certainly looked like they were “family.” But per usual in rap, it may have all been under false pretense.

Almost every major rap imprint marketed themselves as a family — then artists on the label exposed financial practices that weren’t brotherly love. It’s hard to think of an iconic rap crew where no one ever had a financial gripe.

Numerous artists have accused Diddy of bad business on Bad Boy Records. All of the Hot Boyz (including Lil Wayne as a solo artist) fell out with Birdman over unpaid wages at Young Money/Cash Money. Beanie Sigel says former Roc-A-Fella co-CEO Dame Dash owes him money to this day. Few people know that Tupac came to a similar realization as Migos when he realized that his lawyer David Kenner was also the Death Row Records lawyer. He had an argument with Suge Knight about malpractice in the months before he died, and some people felt he was set to leave the label. The rap icon died with just $105,000 in his bank account despite grossing more than $60 million worth of records at Death Row. Death Row observers noted that Suge Knight would often give artists cars and other trinkets instead of actual checks. Snoop Dogg reflected to Arian Foster in 2018 that Suge “gave you what he felt you should have. We got a lot of money, but it may not have been what we were supposed to have.”

Most recently, artists like Kanye West, Megan Thee Stallion, Lil Uzi Vert, and Mase sought to be released or fairly compensated from deals they perceived as unfair.

Artists boasting contractual harmony are sadly the exception to the rule of industry rule #4080 (“record company people are shady”). Since the days of the mob running the music industry, young Black artist’s talent and poverty were systemically exploited for unfair deals that promised access to glitz and glamour but no financial security. The unfair deals were bad enough, but a lot of artists didn’t even get what they were owed from them. Now, instead of doo-wop and jazz singers, there are hoards of young rap and R&B acts being exploited by execs every day, including Black people who can be just as predacious and deceptive as white label execs while feigning Black solidarity.

Migos’ claims harken to their QC mate Lil Yachty’s fogginess on his own contractual situation. In 2016, he divulged to The Fader that he didn’t know his publishing situation. Publishing allows an artist to earn income from licensing opportunities like TV, movies, and video games. He had an infamous dustup with Joe Budden a year later on Everyday Struggle, after it came out that he didn’t know whether he was in a 360 deal. Days later he said that he knew the details of his deal, but simply didn’t know the 360 term. Regardless, the moment was alarming. Coach K was a family friend of his. If QC couldn’t show the then-teenager the ropes, then perhaps actual strangers stand no chance.

And to be clear, no one knows what happened between Migos and QC except the parties involved in the lawsuit. But it’s not farfetched to believe that Migos, as three young, hungry artists, signed whatever was in front of them like so many of their peers. It’s not surprising that they respected and trusted Coach K and Pee to do right by them, and were too blinded by the trappings of fame to properly vet their lawyer. It also wouldn’t be surprising if they were yet another act who grossed millions and may never receive fair compensation due to deception.

Outsiders could simply fault naive artists for not knowing what they’re signing, or not having the right people read over their deal, but that’s a shortsighted reaction to this epidemic. It’s important to advocate for music business awareness, and artist unions. It’s more important to do the work necessary to uprooting the economic conditions that make people feel like a record deal is their only opportunity out of poverty or that they even need a major label. But the only way this cycle fundamentally changes for the better is for the industry to also be held accountable and challenged to change. We shouldn’t be fine with a business model where labels seek every penny they can get out of undereducated artists who are often in their teens or early 20s when signing. If that’s “just business” then that “business” needs to end.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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