Kanye West has been flooding Twitter for the last week with a sprawling rant against record companies and modern music deals, demanding that artists are given control over their own masters — and peppering photos of his home furniture and quotes from the Bible into the tweetstorm as well. Some may have struggled to recognize his core intentions due to this stream-of-consciousness style of communication, but West’s music manager Abou “Bu” Thiam is eager to provide clarity.
The timing of that moment was not as random as it may have appeared, according to Thiam, who quietly started working with West two years ago.
“To be frank, we’ve been negotiating with Universal for a year and a half,” Thiam tells Rolling Stone in his first interview as West’s manager. “We’ve been deep in the trenches with them having these discussions.”
Why now? West has been a superstar in the music industry for more than 15 years. Thiam claims multiple reasons for the sudden social-media blitz: For one, West has grown as a human being, musician, and businessman, and is no longer a fresh artist with a naïve understanding of the industry. “You have all these different lawyers, and a lot of the time, those lawyers also work for labels,” Thiam says. “So, they’re telling you one thing and it’s not really what it is. Now, he’s clear on what his deals look like, what it means to him, and how important these issues are to him.”
For another, Thiam says, West felt it was time to get the masses involved — since fans have been eagerly asking for new music from him for the last year. “He wanted his contract to be a case study. That’s why he tweeted it,” Thiam says. “I respect him for being brave. I can’t think of anyone else who would’ve done that. The model is not to say, ‘Fuck everyone,’ excuse my language. The model is to do things fairly.”
Though West tweeted out a series of demands for the music industry (see below), Thiam says the duo are currently assembling an official manifesto that will be presented to labels “really soon,” after making sure to hear from a variety of voices. West also tweeted on Wednesday that he’d return his 50 percent share of the masters created by all the artists on his label G.O.O.D. Music. “This is something that has never been done in the history of music,” Thiam says. “He’s not only talking the talk, he’s walking the walk.” West’s tweeted call-to-action, Thiam adds, was a strategic move to attract an influx of opinions from other artists and industry figures.
“It takes time to unbreak the system and speak to other artists and get their perspectives on what these deals should look like,” Thiam says. “We don’t want to just give our opinions; we want to listen to other artists, songwriters, and producers, get their thoughts as well, and incorporate their ideas. We’re representing all of the artists.”
“If we don’t fix the system, eventually there won’t be a record business — at least not in the form of a major label. You can be stubborn now, but every year, there are more and more independent artists who know how to be successfully independent.”
Thiam believes it’s in the major-label system’s best interest to align with Kanye on these issues. He points out that many artists are already ditching the label route, which could help lead to a dismantling of the traditional record contract. “You already have a lot of artists that are independent and will never sign to a label because of all this. If we don’t fix the system, eventually there won’t be a record business — at least not in the form of a major label. You can be stubborn now, but every year, there are more and more independent artists who know how to be successfully independent with technology and the Internet.”
In his tweets, West advocated for a new system that allowed artists to get their money on a more regular basis. “When you hear the stories of a musician who hasn’t paid his or her taxes or has gone broke, it’s because it takes so long to get your money,” Thiam says, noting that some creators only get paid once every six months. West also declared that there are no royalty portals for artists. He’s not entirely correct: A royalty portal is at the center of Kobalt’s business model, for example. But Thiam emphasizes that this kind of product hasn’t been offered at a major-label level.
West also railed against label advances as bad deals for artists; Thiam compares them to taking out bank loans to build a house. “You build that house, or make that record. Then the bank goes, ‘Okay, you built your house. You can live in it, but as soon as you’re going to live in it, we own that house,’” Thiam says. “You’ve submitted a down payment, you pay a mortgage, you pay an interest rate, but the bank still owns the house? That’s not right. In this industry, it’s the same thing. You make your records, you tour on these records, you put your sweat, your equity, and your time into the music — but they hold it.”
Asked by Rolling Stone whether West wants to make advances non-recoupable, lower the amount that could be recouped, or get rid of high interest rates on advances, Thiam says all of those options being considered for the manifesto.
West also tweeted that artists need to unionize. Asked whether the rapper wants to work with existing musicians’ unions — as a working musician, West is automatically eligible for Screen Actors Guild American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), for example — Thiam says he thinks West “feels that it’s not the right type of union.”
In terms of negotiating, Thiam says a conversation with Lucian Grainge — head of Universal Music Group, the major label that West specifically accuses of unfairness — is very much on the table. He elaborates to say that he and West want to speak with “everyone who can actually make a decision.”
“We’re no longer in the times that labels have to actually drive to a plant and physically make the records. In 2020, you can put up a record on iTunes by yourself for free. So, why are you charging me a fee for that when I can do that myself?” Thiam says. “It’s just time for the record labels to understand that and to recognize it and do what’s right by the artists and the creators. It’s 2020. Just as everything else changes in life, the artists’ contracts should also change. Having conversations about artists getting their masters should be at the forefront of every conversation.”
Read West’s “New Record and Publishing Deal” guidelines, which he posted in a series of tweets, below.
The artist owns the copyright in the recordings and songs and leases them to the record label / publisher for a limited term. 1 year deals… The record label / publisher is a service provider that receives a share of the income for a limited term. The split can be 80/20 in the artists favor
-DEPENDANTS – Artists must be dependent on no one but themselves to manage their catalog. You should need NO ONE else to understand the business you’re in.
-LAWYERS the first thing that changes about Record Deals is actually lawyers. We need Plain English contracts. A Lawyers role is to IMPROVE deals…. not charge for contracts we cannot understand or track. Re-write deals to be understandable from FIRST READ.
-EQUITY & BLANKET LICENSES ARE THE MAJORITY OF FUTURE NEW INCOME. If you’re with a major you have invested your ‘songs’ as shares in their power to get equity and deals. Almost ALL new deals now are based on ALL songs going to a store or app. The equity is the Artists… NO MORE blanket licenses. It should be clear from day one… what shares you get NOW and when you leave. If your song helps a deal over the line you invested in that store / app same as they did… UMG now has a 2.2 billion share holding stake in Spotify. This is the artists. The system as to how we get share balances on our royalty statement needs to be created and a system on when Artists can cash in.
-ADVANCES ARE JUST LOANS!! On Artists re-signing these stop. Advances are Loans with 75% interest rates (or worse). NO other business in the world takes a look at the business, buys shares, starts to profit when it profits. Record Companies have to buy into you, not loan you.
-ROYALTIES Again back to dependents. You need a business manager to read how you did? So you pay to see your money!!! NO MORE. Royalty portals need to show (and do not now) Every song you delivered Every store you are in How many streams per song Income per song… It sounds basic and logical but it does NOT exist. They focus on top earners and ZERO look at the 440 stores…. Only the top few. Artists are global. That’s why their contract territory says GLOBAL Royalty department in EVERY label. No more separating finance teams from the music
-PORTALS Are not just for royalties. They are for your entire business. Every audio file, every asset, every deal stored WITH the money. Money and Music must stay together. When your term ends, download it all. Leave.