October 7, 2022

Kanye West Already Owns Some of His Masters, Universal Contracts Show

Kanye West has said publicly for years that he deserves to own the rights to his music — the master recordings of his songs, and his publishing — even though he knowingly signed contracts with Universal Music Group and Sony/ATV Music Publishing, with top attorneys present, that adhere to music industry standards whereby the company is the owner. He even sued both companies over the matter last year; while the Universal suit is ongoing, sources say he settled with Sony/ATV last fall.

West renewed those efforts during his epic Twitter binge earlier this week, and tweeted out screen shots of dozens of pages from his contracts (although not all of them).

In the process, he revealed that he apparently already owns some of his masters.

Indeed, rather than demonstrating how unfair his contracts are, his tactic seems more likely to cause Universal tension with artists whose deals aren’t as artist-friendly as his — not to mention bringing heat on himself, as the documents invite scrutiny of terms offered by his G.O.O.D. Music, the label he founded in 2004 now distributed by Universal, and of which he is the chief executive (and presumably has artists signed to contacts similar to the ones he’s calling unfair). And, taken as a whole, the series of documents, which address several of the nine solo albums he has released through Universal since 2004, shows a career path that most artists would envy.

As is typical in many music and sports contracts, early and continued success creates leverage, so while some of West’s tweets complained that Universal subjected him to a series of contracts— “I DONT HAVE A CONTRACT WITH UNIVERSAL … I HAVE TEN” — the barrage of PDFs shows that each new, renegotiated deal put him in a more advantageous position.

In fact, the amendment he signed in 2014 was a pressing and distribution arrangement — a “P&D deal” whereby a company, in this case Universal, manufactures and distributes recordings for which the masters are owned by another party, which in this case is presumably West, who sources tell Variety probably gained the rights to at least some of his master recordings in one of his renegotiations.

But, before we take you to the top of the staircase, here are some highlights from the steps that got him there.

April 13, 2005: Although this is the earliest of the contracts that West shared, it can’t be his first, because debut album “College Dropout” had been released in February of the prior year. It’s signed by representatives for Universal label Island Def Jam, which had distributed the first album, so it likely was a stakeholder in the first contract, too; Jay-Z’s former label, Roc-A-Fella, and West’s Roc the World also are parties to this deal. Terms for subsequent albums are laid out, but will change with subsequent amendments.

Jan. 11, 2011: This is a specific one-album deal that covers that year’s “Watch the Throne,” West’s collaborative album with Jay-Z. It stipulates a recording budget of $2.5 million, with $1 million to West and the remaining $1.5 million to be administered by Roc-A-Fella. This title did not count toward obligations West agreed to in earlier contracts.

May 2012: There are three different amendments signed within a 10-day window: one on May 4, another on May 7 and a third on May 17. These documents start to shift West from a royalty deal to more vested terms. One experienced music attorney who reviewed these documents thinks that even though the agreements were executed on separate dates, that all of the terms outlined in May 7 and May 17 amendments were anticipated when the first of these three was drafted.

These deals mark the start of a distribution arrangement for West’s G.O.O.D. Music label, which originally was distributed by Sony. These amendments also sweeten terms for albums that had been stipulated in earlier agreements. For example, West now gets a $12 million advance for his sixth album and a $6 million for his seventh (2013’s “Yeezus” and 2016’s “Life of Pablo,” respectively). More significantly, the May 7 starts shift him from a royalty deal, as terms for the sixth and seventh albums will entitle him to a profit share, over and above an improved royalty rate of 22% plus 100% of mechanical royalties.

These amendments further promise that the eighth and ninth albums (his most recent and comparatively low-selling “Ye” and “Jesus Is King” releases, although the latter was distributed by indie company Vydia) will shift the artist to P&D terms in which 100% of the profits are his. And, while it’s clear that West wants his masters now, this amendment shortens to 20 years the term before he can take control of the masters from his sixth and seventh albums, if recouped (although the duration of the term they are being shortened from is unclear). A later amendment shortens that window for subsequent albums to seven years.

March 10, 2013: This amendment improves terms for the seventh album, add a 10 th album to the deal, lowers West’s distribution fee, and covers cost overruns on a film he produced called “Cruel Summer,” tied to an album of the same name. Haven’t seen it? Small wonder. It was a seven-screen production that showed at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, which the Los Angeles Times described as “a thumping surround-sound quality that makes a 3-D Michael Bay effort feel like an iPad short.”

A 35-minute run time and the need for multiple screens means “Cruel Summer” was never destined for a theatrical run or practical for home video platforms, but it was apparently a pricy project, because this amendment gets West out from under overages not covered by an earlier Island Def Jam agreement or production partner Doha Film Institute.

According to the documents, the film exceeded its $3.2 million budget by some $1.5 million, with the overage being taken out of West’s future album advances.

Aug. 11, 2014: The arrangement starts to lower West’s distribution fees from 26%, which was stipulated in 2012, to 25% after sales of $15 million in the U.S. for the sixth album. More significantly, the seventh album now becomes a P&D deal, with a distribution fee of 21% for the first $1 million, and then lowers to 17% for this and future albums over the remainder of the deal.

Nearly any experienced music business attorney would likely feel proud to have negotiated these contracts, and if West’s plan was to illustrate the imbalances of the music industry by demonstrating how much more artist-friendly his contract is than many others, he succeeded.

One artist weighing in on his tweets was Big Sean, who is signed to West’s G.O.O.D. label and whose latest album “Detroit 2” recently bowed at No. 1 on Rolling Stone’s Top 200 Albums chart.

When West tweeted “My kids gonna own my masters,” Big Sean replied “Mine too,” punctuated with a prayer emoji.

Additional reporting by Jem Aswad.

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