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BMG Probes Contracts of Black Artists in Study

Billboard reports, Bertelsmann Music Group conducted a study which probed royalty payments and rates of 33 labels and imprints obtained between 2008 and 2019. The research, which began in June, was conducted to reinforce and advocate fair treatment for Black artists and to ensure Black artists are paid royalties proportionately equal to other non-Black artists on the same label.

Following the study, four labels were in question

Of the 3,163 labels probed, 1,010 (32%) are black. According to BMG, 15 labels retain Black and non-Black artists, and 11 of those imprints  showed no evidence of disproportions or racial disadvantages. However, four of those labels display what BMG considers a “statistically significant negative and direct correlation between being Black and receiving lower recorded royalty rates.” The label says the difference ranged from 1.1% to 3.4% lower than non-black artists.

BMG says they stand by black artists

BMG ’s COO Ben Katovsky led the project and said in a statement following the study, ”We stand by Black artists and we recognize the pain many feel about their history. We acknowledge that the totality of the Black music experience cannot be captured in a numerical study, but we wanted to forensically address racial disadvantage in its most tangible form – the payments artists receive from their labels. He continued, “Our focus was to establish if there were differences in royalty rates which could only be explained by skin color. While difference is not necessarily evidence of bias, there were instances of differences that are significant enough that they warrant closer attention. We will follow this through to its conclusion.”

Katovsky shared how professor and author Josh Kun enlightened the COO to engage the study. ”If the music industry wants to support black lives, labels and platforms can start with amending contracts, distributing royalties, diversifying boardrooms, and retroactively paying back all the black artists, and their families, they have built their empires on, Kun suggested in a quote.

Underpaying Black artists is nothing new

Research conducted by research scholars Matt Stahl of University of Western Ontario and Olufunmilayo Arewa of Temple Law pointed out how the record industry systematically denied record royalties to artists in the 50s and 60s.

As a case in point, artist Mary Wells career was explored. Wells was one of Motown’s most successful stars in the 1960s. The 1964 single “My Guy”made number 1 on R&B charts and on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Though the “Two Lovers” singer sold many records, the songstress died in poverty at the age of 49 in 1992.

After contracting cancer, with no medical insurance, Wells struggled to pay rent. Celebrities Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, and Rod Stewart contributed tens of thousands of dollars to cover medical expenses to help the fallen star who helped bridge color lines in music the 1960s. Wells died in poverty.

BMG calls on other conglomerates to follow suit

The four labels were not identified, yet Katovsky advised “We will follow through to its conclusion.”  The BMG’s CEO, Hartwig Mausch, recommended that other labels should also probe their own record deals. “Making good on our commitment to search for racial disadvantage in our historic acquired recorded catalogues has been an enormous and highly complex task. We have learned a lot and there is still more to discover. We invite other labels to join our mission.”

BMG explained results “cannot be extrapolated to prove or disprove racial discrimination in the music industry more broadly.” BMG owns rights to recordings of many notable artists like Nina Simone, Little Richard, and John Lee Hooker.


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