The Beyoncé-Kelis drama is a window into an age-old music industry problem

Beyoncé, left (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Disney); Kelis (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Spotify)

Editor’s note: The following article is an editorial, and the opinions expressed are those of the author. Read more opinions on the Grio.

Beyoncé’s new album Renaissance flowed into my life like a sonic ray of sunshine. It’s so fun, so house, so club and so dance, and there are so many ear-candy moments—the pre-chorus on “Move”: “My friends and I went out to play! Fireworks and champagne/Chantilly lace…” or the moving rhythm of “Break My Soul”. The song “Energy” is yet another heat rock on an album full of them, but this one led to controversy that opened Pandora’s box for me as someone who watches the music industry. for decades. I don’t consider this gossip. I see it as a window into the world of recording artists and the people who determine who gets paid for their music.

The original version of “Energy” interpolated Kelis’ signature song “Milkshake,” which elicited an angry reaction from Kelis on Instagram. Beyonce removed interpolation of the song, but Kelis’ comments left me with questions about how the artists interact with each other and how they get screwed.

Beyoncé removes the tween

One of Kelis’ main complaints is that Beyoncé didn’t call her to tell her she sampled her. She’s not talking about officially deleting the song — that would go through lawyers and executives before it landed on Kelis’ desk (if she owned part of the song’s edit). She talks about what she calls “common decency,” one artist warning another that they’ve used their stuff. A sign of respect.

I didn’t know it was customary in the music world for a star to call another star and say, “Hey, I used your song to make a new one.” Is this how it is in the club of the great recording artists? Kelis claims it does – she names a singer who called her after using her music – but I had never heard of this custom before. I called a few friends, longtime music industry executives and artists, to figure it out. These people have been talking in the background because they are not directly involved in either side of the “Energy” situation. (I also called the folks at Pharrell who declined to comment.) My friends – people who have helped me understand the intricacies of the music industry in the past – have all said that if two artists had a relationship or a friendship, then yes, it’s normal to make a call like that. But if you are not friends, there is no obligation or expectation of such a call. This call is not about money. It’s about showing respect.

If Kelis didn’t know about the song until it was released, that means Beyoncé and her crew didn’t have to clear it with Kelis, which means she has no credits. writing – anyone credited as a songwriter must sign for the new song to be erased. Kelis, on Instagram, said Pharrell “cheated” her out of her publishing rights. Kelis doesn’t have a writing credit on “Milkshake.” The writers of this song are credited as Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo—the Neptunes. We’ll probably never know if Pharrell and Chad are the only real authors of “Milkshake.” We’ll probably never know how much or how much Kelis contributed to this record, but she’s been talking for years about losing her edit to Pharrell. In 2020 she told the Guardian she had done nothing sales of her first two albums, which were produced entirely by the Neptunes because she was “flagrantly deceived and lied to”. She told the Guardian she was promised a three-way split but the contracts were worded differently. She said, “Their argument is, ‘Well, you signed it.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I signed what I was told, and I was too young and too stupid to check it.'”

It’s not uncommon for singers to help write a song for their own album and then have their songwriting credit erased. There’s a long, sad history of younger artists giving up publishing or having more experienced people push them out of credits. An example: longtime Prince bassist Brown Mark said in his recent autobiography My life in the purple kingdom that he did significant work on Prince’s classic “Kiss” that went uncredited. He told me in a interview on my podcast Touré show that if he had gotten even a small piece of that song, he would be financially set up for life, so there’s a lot at stake when considering who is credited with writing a song. And it’s not just editing that the bigger artists sometimes take from the smaller ones – it’s not unusual for the big pop stars, the people who are the backbone of the industry, to take melodies, rhythms, dances or fashion ideas from small artists who are not in a position to complain. The old adage “good artists borrow, great artists steal” is also part of the music industry. Kelis alludes to it, saying that Beyoncé “stole me before.”

One thing my friends saw in Kelis’ comments was an anger that many artists feel. It’s very difficult to make a living as a recording artist these days – for every Beyoncé who is worth nearly half a billion, there are 10,000 singers who are barely middle class or downright struggling. It costs a lot of money to make an album, and in the current model artists are supposed to give away music for free – the virtual pennies they get from streaming services just give it away. The only place most artists make real money these days is on tour or if they can use their artistry to turn into an ancillary business like Rihanna did using her fame and hiding place to build Fenty.

But this whole hamster wheel of making music to make money some other way isn’t viable for most. Many artists are upset that the industry prevents them from making money doing what they love to do: making music. Kelis’ anger about the way the industry works is not an aberration. Many artists feel the same way. I saw that anger boiling over for a while – years ago a successful artist told me the label owed them between $5 and $10 million. They had been so upset about it for so long that they were paralyzed. My first question was how could an artist be so unsure of what was due to him? How could you not know if your employer owes you $5 or $10 million?

Kelis accuses Beyoncé of sampling her music without her blessing:

Well, that’s partly because industry payment and accounting practices are opaque. When you release an album, guess who’s counting the number of records you’ve sold: the label. This number indicates how much you make, but there is no incentive for labels to be honest and pay artists all their due. Several people have told me over the years that being a recording artist is like doing a job and your salary goes to your boss, not you. You never even get to see it. Your boss tells you how much you earned and then pays you. Would you feel comfortable in this system? Many recording artists are fed up with all of this.

At the end of Kelis’ Instagram thoughts, she says “Something has to change” and she’s right. Artists aren’t treated fairly by the industry, but we’re in a world where artists have more opportunity than ever to get their music straight to people. I wonder if in the years to come we’ll see artists start to bypass the traditional system and distribute music themselves and find ways to make sure they feel respected.


Touré hosts the “Touré Show” podcast and the “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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