The Black History the Music Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know.

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( Unfortunately, everything old is new again.  I imagine that when some Southern plantation owners finally decided to move to the cities and start businesses, they might have founded much of the music industry as we know it today – at least, in spirit.

Surely you know that our Black ancestors were in slavery 200 years ago (although some states will work hard to make sure your children never learn).  A lesser-known period of the Black struggle in the United States was the 100 years or so after slavery many of our people spent working on the old plantations under a system called sharecropping.  This is not ancient history; sharecropping persisted until the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s, and in some areas even longer. 

Not long after the Civil War, Southern states passed laws forbidding Black people from going into many professions and trades.  These laws forced many Blacks to have to return for their former masters on the plantations they had just left.  So, the plantation owners agreed with their former slaves to give them a piece of land to live on, to loan them seed and tools to work the land, and then be paid back the rent and the loans from a share of the crop – hence, sharecropping.

Problems for the freed Blacks quickly arose.   Most freed Blacks could not read, and would not be allowed to examine the plantation owner’s books even if they could read. Therefore, they were unable to know if high  interest charges were placed into their contracts for seed and material they were loaned, and they were unable to examine the plantation owner’s records to see if the crop produced was big enough to pay back their debts.  Thus, the plantation owners had our ancestors coming and going.

“Oh, my, well, you didn’t quite grow enough this year to pay me back – but don’t worry.  I’ll loan you more seed, more tools, and that land on which you’re living again, and you can pay me back out of the crops next year.”

But “next year” never came; our people in the South were kept in debt year after year, and, because they were in debt, were thrown into prison to provide even more free labor to the plantation owners and their friends in law and politics.  There is a documentary whose name well describes the sharecropping period – “Slavery by Another Name” – which every Black person should see.  But it is a definite must-see for Black artists and artist-songwriters, because everything old is new again.

When an artist goes to work with a record label, the record label LOANS the artist studio time, tour support, promotional campaigns, packaging (yes, even “packaging” on digital downloads if the artist doesn’t speak up), and a piece of money called an advance.  All of these things the artist is supposed to repay out of his or her royalties BEFORE he or she is paid anything.

The problem is that neither the standard record contract nor the newer 360 Deal usually comes with the two things that would actually allow the artist to get paid; clear, easy-to-understand terminology in the contract, and the right to examine the record label’s books.  Thus the artist, who begins in debt, has no way to know how much he is charged and why, and no way of knowing if his project has made enough money to pay off his debts.  So, at the end of the project, the record executives can come and say…

“Oh, my, well, your project didn’t make enough to pay off what you owe us – but don’t worry.  We’ll loan you more studio time, more tour support, and another advance, and you can pay us back out of the royalties from the next project.”

And that is how Black artists have stunned the world with their musical skills and been kept poor for 100 years  – they have just been sharecropped into slavery by another name, in the music industry.  Does that sound like an appealing future for YOU? If not, do two basic things if you feel you must work with a record label.

First, have a lawyer go over all contracts with you before you sign – and get the kind of lawyer who  will explain to you the terms and conditions in all contracts so that you understand.  The more informed you are, the better decisions you will be able to make.

Second, get an audit clause inserted into your contract such that you, your lawyer, your accountant, and anybody else you think could help will have the right to examine the record label’s books to see what money has been earned so you will know if and when you should be paid.  Without this clause, you will likely not be paid, ever, because there are few record label executives that are eager to come running to you saying, “Oh my – we owe you now instead of you owing us!”

Or, just go independent – not enough can be said about this option.  If you educate yourself on the way the music business works today, and learn some basic skills about building a fan base and using social media to support that build, you can achieve great success without handing the sharecropping industry – I mean music industry – a dime.  Let the industry come look for you… and even then, be very careful!

The spirit of plantation owners and the spirit of record label executives, alas, are one and the same – chewing up the labor of Black people for free by legal means is an old practice.  We do not, however, have to keep signing up to be sharecropped as musicians – examine your contracts, get those audit clauses in, and enjoy the freedom if you go independent!

Staff Writer; Deeann D. Mathews

You may connect with this talented sister via twitter; Deeann D. Mathews.

She is also author of The Freedom Guide for Music Creators which can be purchased from the website of Marcus Bookstores, the oldest African American bookstore in the world:”