Carla Harris: More than 100,000 new songs are added to streaming platforms every day. Which means the music industry is changing faster than ever.
The ability for artists to market and distribute their own work brings with it a lot of opportunity. But much of the power continues to be held in the hands of record companies and publishers who often control ownership of music rights. And with that consolidation of power, the industry can profit disproportionately from those who historically have the least power to push back.
Tiffany Red: This business is centered around the one percenters.
Carla Harris: This is Tiffany Red, founder of The 100 Percenters. She uses her platform to advocate for the rights of music creatives. Today, we'll hear how she channeled her passion for music to begin speaking out against the unfair treatment of songwriters.
Then I sit down with Chaucer Barnes, the Chief Marketing Officer of United Masters. Later, you'll hear how he uses his background as an independent musician to create more equitable opportunities for independent artists today.
Chaucer Barnes: When we first started United Masters, independence really meant you hadn't made it yet. And in the last five years, independence is becoming the default setting in the music industry around the world.
Carla Harris: Welcome to Access and Opportunity, I'm your host Carla Harris. And we're telling the stories of individuals working to drive change within their communities. We provide context about systemic inequities and share tangible examples of how ideas around access and opportunity are being made real every day.
Tiffany Red: I never took anything serious. I never saw anything through, before I started doing music.
Carla Harris: Before Tiffany Red paired her love of writing poetry with music, she lacked direction. But all it took was a casual invitation from a friend at Camden County College for everything to change.
Tiffany Red: He just one day was like, have you ever thought about turning your poems into songs? And I just was like, “no”. And, he talked me into trying, we went to the auditorium at our school. He got on a piano and it was just like a light bulb moment.
Carla Harris: It was in that auditorium that Tiffany's purpose became clear.
Tiffany Red: I definitely didn't just want the hit. I wanted to be a household name as a songwriter.
Carla Harris: Not long after, Tiffany was well on her way. Thanks to a whole lot of determination and a little luck, she was working for a top agency and writing songs for some of the biggest artists of the early 2000s.
Tiffany recognizes that her songwriting career had an unusually fast trajectory. Within two years of moving to Los Angeles to pursue her dream, she had won a grammy for contributing to Jennifer Hudson's self-titled album.
Tiffany Red: I graduated high school, 2005, discovered music, 2006, moved to LA 2007, Jennifer Hudson, 2008. And then, Grammy. Look, it was like bam, bam, bam. It was so fast.
Carla Harris: As rapidly as her star rose, the music industry was changing. Looking back, Tiffany sees that she entered a very different business than what exists today.
Tiffany Red: When I first got into the business, it was a lot more gatekeeping to be honest. In order to work on an artist that was signed to a record label, you had to play the game. You had to be in LA, Atlanta or New York. Now you can make a record in your basement and blow up off Instagram or TikTok.
Carla Harris: Back in 2007, you had to know the right people to get your name out there as a songwriter. Thanks to advances in technology, there are fewer hoops to jump through today. But that access comes at a cost.
Tiffany Red: When I came into the music industry, this was before streaming, when radio play was still a massive thing. And so before, when you used to buy a record, there were 12 songs on there, everybody was getting paid because you purchased the whole record, where now, if you're only listening to seven and eight, those are the only people that are getting paid that contributed to this body of work. So there's a lot less gatekeepers, but there's also a lot less money when it comes to being a songwriter now.
Carla Harris: Songwriters don’t earn money upfront like producers or artists. They get paid pro rata based on their share of the publishing, or the lyrics and the melody. And per the 1909 Copyright Act, the rates at which songwriters are paid is set by the Copyright Royalty Board. In short, songwriters lack agency when it comes to how they’re compensated.
Tiffany Red: The way streaming has impacted songwriters making a living has everything to do with the payout system. People think that like, oh, you become a songwriter you're making some decisions. No, the decisions already made for you so if you're gonna do this job, these are the rates.
Carla Harris: When Tiffany won the Grammy at such a young age, it felt surreal. But as she's navigated the ups and downs of a career in the music industry, it's provided much needed perspective.
Tiffany Red: Winning the Grammy made it so that when I was going through it, when I was struggling, I would look at that like I know that this is possible because I already did it. And I did it from the very beginning.
Carla Harris: After over a decade in the industry, Tiffany was fed up.
Tiffany Red: By the end of that day — and not just that day, just period — my entire career, I was tired of not making money and watching everybody else get rich.
Carla Harris: The tipping point for Tiffany was an email. She had written an album for a K-pop band that was instrumental in breaking the group, amassing over 125 million listens on Spotify alone since its release. That day, the record company asked her to sign an agreement so she could get paid a fee after one of the songs was licensed for commercial purposes.
Tiffany Red: And the fee was $500 to be split with everybody that was on the song.
Now of that song, I think I owned…it wasn't a lot. So my share of the fee was $66. And I was just so exhausted with the disrespect.
Carla Harris: Now, it wasn’t just the nominal fee that inspired Tiffany to take action. It was an accumulation of frustrations with the music industry, from compensation to lack of equity. Tiffany leveraged her social media to speak out against the injustice she experienced in the industry, and to claim her work as her own.
Tiffany Red: I have this massive record. The swag of this record, the bravado, all of that. I wanted people to understand that that was me. That wasn't them. That was me.
Carla Harris: Much to Tiffany's surprise, the post struck a chord with her followers and went viral. It would lead to a new chapter in her career and a renewed passion for the music industry.
Tiffany Red: That same light bulb moment I had at the piano at Camden County is the same light bulb moment I had when that post went viral. And I had the idea for The 100 Percenters.
Carla Harris: Galvanized by the response, Tiffany launched The 100 Percenters, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower and uplift music creatives by providing them with essential resources, support, and education. And while they advocate for all music creatives to have equitable pay and opportunities, Tiffany emphasizes its focus on the BIPOC community.
Tiffany Red: That's just really important to me. This business is centered around the one percenters. We are nowhere to be found when it comes to who really pulls the strings and who's really making the decisions and making the money off of this.
Carla Harris: When Tiffany reimagines the music industry, one word comes to mind:
Tiffany Red: Freedom. I would do away with the elitism. A lot more people would be at the table. And everybody would be free to negotiate for themselves.
Carla Harris: Back when Tiffany entered the music business, success looked like becoming a household name. Today it looks different.
Tiffany Red: I've been through a lot in the music industry. I don't put the pressure on myself to finish everything in one day, but you best believe I'm gonna lay a couple bricks each day and get to the place where it's finally a finished product, even if it takes me forever, you know? And I think that's what success is, is showing up.
Carla Harris: In the three years since Tiffany founded The 100 Percenters, the organization has made a mark on the industry. From encouraging top publishing companies to speak out against archaic contracts to seeding songwriting grants to creatives.
Our next guest is also dedicated to putting more power in the hands of artists.
Chaucer Barnes is the CMO of United Masters, a record label alternative and digital music distribution company founded in 2017 that attracts independent artists through its more equitable business model.
All too often traditional record deals have been structured in ways that disproportionately negatively impact musicians of color. Artists like Prince and Little Richard famously spoke out against predatory deals that denied them their fair share of royalties.
Chaucer and I discussed some of the ways inequity persists today in the music industry and how United Masters is enabling artists to retain full ownership of their master rights and their earning potential.
Carla Harris: So, Chaucer Barnes, thank you so much for being here with me today. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. Can we jump right in?
Chaucer Barnes: We may, it's my pleasure as well.
Carla Harris: Alrighty. Well, I have found that music is one of the great universal tools that exist in the world. It is the thing that we can all agree on,and all engage in, and all enjoy no matter what corner of the world you are in.
And I'll tell you when my ‘aha’ moment was, Chaucer. In the summer of 1981, that was my first opportunity to go to Europe to sing. And we went to what was then communist Germany. It was East Germany.
Chaucer Barnes: Wow.
Carla Harris: And we sang in a church that Bach composed in. My part of the concert was Negro spirituals, and I'll never forget the moment I was singing Ain't Got Time to Die, you know, [singing] Lord, I keep so busy. I was singing that and I remember thinking, oh my gosh — because the people in the audience spoke no English, and they were crying at exactly the spaces that you would expect people who had…
Chaucer Barnes: …where they supposed to.
Carla Harris: …that lived experience. Or ancestors who had had that experience would be feeling it and crying at the exact time. They got it. And I was like, okay.
Chaucer Barnes: That's it. Why would you ever create an economic disincentive against that? The power to do that.
Carla Harris: Yep. To create some equity, it matters.
So, before you pivoted to advertising and marketing, you started as an independent hip hop artist in the early 2000s.Can you tell me that story and what initially inspired you to pursue a career in music?
Chaucer Barnes: Yes, ma'am. Well, first and foremost, even 20 some odd years later, I think ‘career’ might be a little lofty to describe it. I had a degree in philosophy, and so you go play music as a lifestyle choice or you go to law school, right? And so, as I thought about leaving the East Coast where I spent all my life,. I just really wanted to go far, and I felt entitled at that point to just go into explore mode.And music created a nice comfort zone for me. So when I moved all the way to Portland, Oregon with my music director — he wrote all the music; I wrote all the words — we rebuilt our band, and we rebuilt it as a business instead of as a hobby at that point. And we really bootstrapped the business, I would say. By a year we had some really great opening slots, right? So we were opening for international touring acts when they would pass through the bigger ballrooms in the area. And we finally put together our first full-length project that was ready for distribution and for sale.
Carla Harris: Let me peel this back Chaucer, because I do still think that there is an immature view broadly among aspiring artists of what this business of music is all about. So let me take you back to the time that you were starting in the early 2000s.And you realize if you're just a singer, then you're the least on the food chain — doesn't matter. There are lots of singers. If you're the writer, you could probably get paid. And if you're the distributor, you can definitely get paid. So for all of those folks out there who don't understand the pieces of the economics of the business of music, those are some of the basic pieces. So the holy grail, which is where we're gonna get to in this conversation, the holy grail was distribution, which is why there was such a big inequity around the economics of the business. Because if you couldn't get played and you didn't have places for people to buy it, there was no way that you could make the money and let alone get to a business. So I wanna go back to your statement that we started to think about the band as a business, as opposed to a hobby.What was your vision around that?
Chaucer Barnes: You know, digital was fairly new at the time. And what we started to notice was we had this bubbling fan base. I guess we had, I don't know, moved 250 units, which was big for us at the time in South Korea. It really started to open up this idea. And we didn't have the language for this at that time, of a thousand true fans. We recognized maybe a T-shirt would sell in places we've never been. Maybe we could tour in places that we've never been. And so that was our, I think, our very first sense that the music might be a promotional vehicle for the real business, as opposed to the business itself. And again, you know, 250 units, that's close to nothing. But I think why it's important to even talk about is: it opened our eyes to an entirely new benefit of digital distribution. We thought that we would go play a show. And then within that we were gonna meet some new people who were gonna discover the record because we had just played it live for them. We were gonna sell them a disc: rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. So the idea that we could move that record without the performance was just shocking to us. And, and of course, that's where music has arrived today, 20 years later.
Carla Harris: Absolutely. Absolutely. So let's dig into the numbers. A recent report from USC Annenberg, which analyzed 900 popular songs from the last decade found that while 43.8% of the established artists of these songs were Black, only 4.2% of the CEOs of the labels were in fact Black.
I'm sitting here bristling in a way about the inequity that still persists because we have the availability of information now about how this works. And I would argue, when we think about the big stars of the ‘40s, the ’50s and the ‘60s, the ones that later wrote stories about their masters being not their own, or royalties going in the other direction. They really did not know, but you know, it's hard to kind of get your arms around the fact that it still exists in 2023, when we have all that information.
Chaucer Barnes: When the proverbial big record label suit rolls up and he says, “I got a $3 million check for you.” That $3 million check, which by the way, also the math on the taxes you're about to pay, how it's gonna be recouped, et cetera…even knowing that artists tipped into that direction.And some of that is just simply, you know, I have these dreams and I'll figure that out later, right?
Carla Harris: Mm-hmm.
Chaucer Barnes: But when we first started United Masters independence really meant you hadn't made it yet. And in the last five years, independence is becoming the default setting in the music industry around the world, right? And especially when you see the share of independent acts relative to those signed by the three majors, the gap is closing quickly. And so what that doesn't mean is that, you know, there will never be another household name and Sony or Warner, Universal's not behind it, obviously that’s going to remain true.
What it does mean is you see these cultural kind of trade wins tip toward the independent artists being regarded as a boss, and all of the kind of social capital that comes with that. You know, we've got people lying on records now about owning their masters?
Carla Harris: Wow.
Chaucer Barnes: On one side, as depressing as that might be - It also tells you exactly which way this thing is going.
Carla Harris: So what was your original mission when you guys went out to pitch this? What did you say the mission of United Masters was?
Chaucer Barnes: The mission of United Masters at that time was still to make independence, the default setting of the music industry.
It was focused however, on what we consider to be the next generation of superstar elite artists. So we looked at, for example, Chance the Rapper, who made it very far as an independent artist. And we said, that doesn't need to be exceptional. That should just be the norm. So we are going to focus on finding the next “Chance the Rappers”, across every genre, across every geography. And we are going to give them the toolkit to effectively be where they would've been had they signed a major deal by the time they get to that sophomore album or so. They are going to be complete businesses. Complete end-to-end enterprises.
It was just a matter of can we make sure that the artist is protected, and can we make sure that the brand is investing in the artist before or on their rise?
Carla Harris: So that by the time you get to the outcome, A plus B equals - that equals is equitable for both sides in the party.
Chaucer Barnes: Yes ma'am. And much bigger than it would've been had either gone it alone.
Carla Harris: Right. Understood. So tell us a little bit about how United Masters works for an independent artist who signs up on the platform today.
Chaucer Barnes: So today what we've built is what we like to call it, an OS of independence, right? And so that starts at distribution. The reason we started at distribution is you have music that's ready for human consumption and we have the ability to take that to all the places it can be consumed.
And kind of own the custody chain of all of the revenue that comes back from all of those multiple multiple places and spaces, right?
So the platform, think of that as the app that your artist downloads through, which they upload their music and retrieve their royalties. That app experience is enjoyed by 1.6 million artists today. As you can well imagine it's a 10 90 rule like anything else on the internet. There are some people who are making really life-changing money just through the music alone. And there are many, many others who are just trying to be discovered. That's that end of the pool.
In the middle. There's also a label business, right? So we have label-like services. We do not own your masters, we just have a finite license on the music with you. And we come in for some percentage that is more meaningful for us so that we can help with tour support and all of the other things than an artist needs, artist, marketing, et cetera, et cetera.
And then there's an entire brand practice. So how are brands going to play into and capitalize the new expression of the music industry? Some of those things are net new, right? So how can brands participate in the platform that we are building? So for example, how could a payments processor play a meaningful role in accelerating the payments to artists?
So you have a brand practice, you have a label practice, and you have a platform practice. That's the business as it exists today.
Carla Harris: Now the question I have for you is, you said you have 1.6 million artists signed up on United Masters today. How do you all make the decision around which artists you're going to support for some of these other things? Because as much as you have built something that is scalable because it's digital, I don't know how you would make that decision. Right?
Chaucer Barnes: That's right. So, there are some things that are pure editorial decisions, things that we discovered that live on the platform, that someone in the building just says, let's work really hard to make sure this gets all the light at hand. That normally happens through our editorial, kind of curation practice.
You might see our Music Mondays playlist, and if someone on the A&R team discovers something they think is particularly talent rich then it might make its way to some publishing that we do.
Before the most part, what we're really doing is we are listening to the signal. That is coming back from all of the users on the other side of the software, all of the listeners on the other side of the software, right?
Carla Harris: As you were speaking I thought, hmm, you know, in many ways they're doing what the, in the old model, what the record labels used to do and what the A&R folks used to do. They would go out and find somebody, like you said before, it's one out of 10 in investments. That's really gonna be your hit, your Aretha Franklin, right? At the end of the day. But the thing that's profound that you're saying to me also is that you get to play in this space because of the availability of data, because of the streaming. Because now you don't have to send A&R people all over the world to do that because the artist is also self-identifying by making the investment to put themselves on these streaming platforms. The data is now created for you to be able to make some of these decisions around how you invest as an entity. But you're also, if I can go so far as to say, playing a public good service by putting some of this information out there as well as in terms of what people should be able to do and what's the importance of independence is and how they can make it, if you will, as an independent artist
Chaucer Barnes: Absolutely. I would go further to say the idea that there is any advantage in an under informed talent pool, that's for…
Carla Harris: That's for old times. I'll finish it for you.
We're almost at the end, but I have to ask you: how does United Masters as a company with the Black founder and Black executive board seek to rectify some of the inequality still in the industry?
Chaucer Barnes: I think one of the natural consequences of our success, is you never get another scenario whereby, that argument that I should own my work seems odd. That's helpful. But I think underneath all of that we will also see a broad, stable and hopefully credit worthy middle class within the creative class. And these, this is gonna be the ownership class, right? So these are ownable assets that might continue to spin off cuz all it takes is to be rediscovered. And so when you own the underlying IP I think you get net new business models that can result.
I say that to say this: I don't know what a broad informed middle class within a creative class creates. I just know it's better for the culture and I know it's better for the financial opportunity that entertainment, in general, and music, specifically, can be.
So we are really at the “bottom of the first”, if you will, in terms of this business. We need to continue to have independence, swing and absorb more market share. We need to teach brands that they can invest in the music space with the same confidence that they invest in the sports space.
And we need to equip our creators with the fluency, the financial fluency, and otherwise, to really understand, and enable the cooperation between them to be able to create net new businesses that might not exist yet.
Carla Harris: Chaucer Barnes. Thank you very much for taking the time with me. Thank you.
Chaucer Barnes: Thank you so much.
Carla Harris: I want to thank both Chaucer Barnes and Tiffany Red for joining me on this episode of Access and Opportunity.
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