Researcher explores label exploitation of R&B artists

Illustration by frank Neufeld



Matt Stahl sees it as a tragic, missed opportunity.

Ruth Brown, once known as the ‘Queen of R&B,’ signed on with Atlantic Records in 1949, at the age of 19. She had a series of hit songs in the 1950s, like Teardrops from My Eyes, So Long and (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean, the first of which topped the Billboard R&B charts for 11 weeks.

Because of Brown’s success, Atlantic – a company that housed names such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, among other giants – was known as “the house that Ruth built.”

But even at the height of her success, Brown wasn’t collecting royalties. In fact, she would not see a dime from Atlantic until the 1980s. And she was not the only R&B artist who fared the same way.

“It’s a remarkably untold story. It’s amazing the only places where it matters, so far, have been biographies and some enthusiast-oriented works. These artists made invaluable contributions to our popular culture. It just blows my mind this hasn’t been the focus of a scholarly inquiry yet,” said Stahl, who teaches in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

“Given the importance of these artists to popular music, and the study of race and intellectual property rights and royalties, I can’t believe I’m the first one to identify this,” he continued.

Stahl is preparing for an upcoming talk, Rhythm, Royalties, and the Blues: 1950s R&B Performers’ Struggle for Unpaid Royalties, scheduled for Nov. 9 at the London Public Library.

Brown’s story will not be the only one you will hear at the lecture, though hers is perhaps the first to cite when discussing exploitative practices that affected early R&B artists.

“Ruth Brown had a string of hits that were very important to establishing Atlantic’s profitability and reputation in the early 1950s. When she parted ways with them in the 1960s, when new forms of music were becoming more popular and she was fading, they told her she owed them $26,000,” Stahl said.

Moreover, Brown was not alone. Even Muddy Waters, in the 1980s, was reportedly $60,000 in debt to Chess Records – a company he had not worked for in 20 years, Stahl explained.

Initially, companies explained these debts by saying artists they worked with were continually asking executives for cash to help them out, pay their rent and cover other personal costs. However, the story is much more complicated than that, Stahl stressed.

“Original recording contracts were very simple; they said the company would pay the singer anywhere from $50-$100 per session for singing. They would pay the backup artists and instrumentalists, and they would pay someone to arrange and produce. The company would pay the studio cost, and then, once the record started selling, the studio would reclaim those costs out of the artist’s royalties. Once those outlays were repaid, then the artist would, in theory, start collecting royalties,” he said.

However, for Brown and others, this was not the case. In the 1980s, a group of artists began to push the record companies who profited from their work to account for a lack of royalty payments.

Brown found a pro bono lawyer, a huge R&B fan, dedicated to helping the cause. He started pestering Atlantic on Brown’s behalf and discovered the company had been charging Brown – and many of its other early black R&B artists – for items not allowed in the contract, like packaging, remixing and artwork.

“This attorney found very significant, smoking gun evidence – so it was a really big deal. What came out was, this was a very routine practice a lot of record companies were doing – as R&B fans learned in the 1980s, when some of these artists were getting older, they all had massive debts to their companies,” Stahl explained.

Brown’s lawyer had enough evidence to show Atlantic was siphoning fees from royalty accounts and was able to hold a credible threat over the head of the company. With Brown, the pair shamed Atlantic into paying up, and, eventually, the company paid more than $2 million to form the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which ever since, has doled out money to aging artists in need.

Atlantic also renegotiated contracts after the fact, and wiped the royalty debt of its artists, pushing other major record labels to follow suit.

In many ways, Brown’s story is revolutionary, Stahl said.

“It’s not just because it gives us an interesting window into the racialized practises of the music industry. The advent of R&B in the 50s, and its movement from marginal music to mainstream music where millions of white kids are buying records by these black artists, was an opportunity for African Americans to not only achieve public recognition, but accumulate wealth, and pass that wealth onto their children in the form of long-term rights to receive royalty payments,” Stahl said.

“In the U.S., income differences between black Americans and white Americans are very serious. But way more serious are differences in wealth. Wealth is a kind of money that provides long-term security and ability to raise one’s social status over generations, whereas income is the kind of money you need to pay for your daily essentials. This is a major missed opportunity for a significant segment of African Americans to achieve some economic stability and social status. This was a terrible, tragic missed opportunity.”

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ON THE FLIP SIDE: Information and Media Studies professor Matt Stahl will deliver his public lecture, Rhythm, Royalties and the Blues: 1950s R&B Performers’ Struggle for Unpaid Royalties, at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9, at the Central Branch, London Public Library, in the Stevenson & Hunt Room A. This event is part of the #PublicInterest: FIMS Talks in Media & Information Lecture Series.