I wanted a simpler hashtag - something that would be easily memorable, not take up too much precious characters in a tweet, and yet capture the entirety of my argument. Well... While it ticks off the first box, I can see how it falls short on the other two. At the very least, the statement is provocative enough that it may just prod people - perhaps even Dr. Dre himself - to ask why I am leveling that charge.
Who am I?
My name is Kareem Powell; I am a pianist from Dayton, Ohio. Depending on who you ask, I am either a brilliant overlooked pianist, a nice guy, or a laughing stock that gets called only as a last resort. Frankly, I'm at an age where I've ceased to care. I take care of my family and sometimes I actually get to make music. If you want to learn more about me, browse through the Curriculum Vitae on my website.
|Front cover of my album|
The more relevant thing to note is that in 2011, I released my first - and to date only - solo piano album "Reflections in Black and White." The back of the album cover says "Sunstrike Entertainment LLC." What it doesn't say is that I am Sunstrike Entertainment LLC. I wrote most of the tracks and arranged all of it for piano. The studio time came out of my pocketbook. I used my car as collateral on a loan to pay for that album. There is no agent, no manager, and no producer. The risk was solely mine.
Honestly, the album got very little traction. I couldn't even book a local gig with it. No one was interested. Three years later, I've given away far more music than I've sold. Do I stand by the music? Absolutely. I gained valuable experience that I'll put to use whenever I do a followup. The point is that "Reflections in Black and White" is my hard work - blood, sweat, tears, risk, reward and failure. All of it.
Ins and Out of Digital Distribution
Like most recording artists, I use digital distribution. Where the major-level artists are concerned, the major record labels - all three of them - are responsible for getting their work out into the digital marketplace. Because they have the big-name artists that consumers most want to hear, the record labels are able to negotiate directly with each of the platforms: iTunes, Spotify, Rdio, etc. All of them.
Well, I'm not signed to a record label, remember? For my album to be delivered to these digital marketplaces where you can find it along Taylor Swift and my "enemy" Dr. Dre, I have to use what is called an "aggregator." You see, each place has certain things that need to be done to the music files in order to be delivered best on their platform. The record labels have people whose job it is to do that. My one-man-operation doesn't. An aggregator collects all of us stragglers - I mean - independent musicians, processes our music, and sends it right to the marketplace. For that service - which is the only way we little people can distribute our albums along with the majors - the aggregator charges a fee or percentage of the royalties. My aggregator of choice is CD Baby.
For the most part, I have been pleased with the quality of CD Baby's customer service. They were the shining jewel in what was otherwise a chaotic process of self-releasing my first album. Just because you like someone doesn't mean everything they do is perfect.
|The CD Baby Account Dashboard|
One of the things I like about CD Baby is their record-keeping. I can go inside my member profile and see when an album or track has been sold, which site it sold on, and how much money I will be paid as a result. My revenues are nothing to brag about, so my browsing through this is more of a "morbid curiosity" type thing. I can also see which platforms are streaming my music, which tracks are getting streamed, and what they are paying me. Again, it's nothing significant, but it gives me a little personal insight into the ongoing discussions about digital streaming.
Here are some "very exciting" screenshots of my streaming reports from:
|Streaming Report: Deezer|
|Streaming Report: iTunes Match|
|Streaming Report: MediaNet|
|Streaming Report: Muve Music|
|Streaming Report: Rdio|
|Streaming Report: Rhapsody|
|Streaming Report: Spotify|
Yes, the individual stream revenues are laughable. I was actually tickled pink whenever I saw anything even resembling a penny per stream, seeing as Spotify likes to pay me 4 hundredths of a cent. I joked to a friend a few weeks ago that Spotify usually pays me enough to buy half a candy bar per year.
On Sunday November 16, 2014, I happened to take a peek at my account overview and I saw with delight that my album was now being streamed on Beats Music for the first time and these were the first streaming reports. (There is usually about a 2 month lag between the streaming and the actual report.) Again, this is typically about entertainment value for me, so I went to see how many streams and what minuscule amount that Apple's newest acquisition would be paying me...
|Streaming Report: Beats Music|
Fifty-three streams - which is the equivalent of listening to my album four times - and I did not get paid a damn thing by a corporation that Dr. Dre had just sold to tech juggernaut Apple Inc for THREE BILLION DOLLARS.
Needless to say, I was hot. Assuming it was a mistake, I asked CD Baby what was happening.
|"Dear CD Baby: WTF, Dude?"|
|"Dear TKP: Yeah. We sold you out, Bruh."|
|"Dear CD Baby: *insert expletive-laden rant*"|
Yeah, I blew my stack. I was already earning jack shit and Beats Music just got to use my music at no charge so they could build their own customer base?
How do I respond?
Good question. I didn't need a lawyer to know that what Apple/Beats Music just did was perfectly legal. Like everyone else, they negotiated with CD Baby and the other aggregators and CD Baby agreed. If the major record labels accepted this arrangement - again, I don't know... they don't call me - then I could easily see Apple turning to the aggregators and saying "This is the deal; take it or leave it." Again, there's no doubt in my mind it's legal.
Do you know what else is legal? Using eminent domain to route a sludge pipe through a farmer's corn field. Starting a Black Friday sale during Thanksgiving Dinner. Passing laws to criminalize feeding the homeless. Legal does not mean right.
My initial reaction as you see from the email above was to remove my album from Beats Music, reconsider my relationship with CD Baby, and be done with it. Once my initial anger subsided, I started wondering if that would really solve the problem. It's not like I was the only musician this affected.
1.) Did other musicians (particularly with CD Baby) know this was happening?
2.) Did Beats Music negotiate that agreement with everyone?
3.) How can this practice affect the entire market?
4.) Who has the leverage?
Again, Beats Music - the brainchild of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine - is owned by Apple. Apple owns iTunes, who single-handedly determines the maximum sales price for digital downloads. Why? Because everyone goes there. Any other marketplace will just want to match or beat iTunes price. So yes, they control that part of the industry and will take their 30% cut. Could Beats Music possibly do the same thing to streaming?
Spotify - the favorite punching bag of Taylor Swift and Scott Borchetta - is valuated at $3 Billion last I checked. Pandora - an online radio service whose royalties are set by law - is valuated at $2.6 Billion. Apple Inc. is valuated at $662 Billion. (What'd you expect? Beats Music was worth $3 Billion to them.) I'm neither an economist nor a businessman, but I'm pretty sure with pockets that deep, they probably will take over streaming once they figure out the right product. If Apple/Beats Music can get away with setting a new standard - that artists do NOT get paid for music streamed during "trial membership periods" - then all other streaming platforms will follow suit.
So, yes, I could take my album off of Beats Music aka take my ball and go home. In a few months, I'd just be finding out that Spotify, Rdio, and everyone else will be doing the same thing and not compensating artists for streams on their "free versions." Apple has already been in negotiations with major labels to reduce their royalty rates. What do you think that will do to the rest of us?
It is time to speak up.
Other musicians need to know this was happening. Other musicians need to know this could possibly be happening to them. They need to check their reports and tell their stories. Speaking out against Apple/Beats Music is the only way I can see convincing them to end this practice and pay artists for all the music streamed on their platforms.
And from my standpoint, that begins with holding "one of our own" to task.
Dr. Dre needs to be held accountable.
Yeah... Technically, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine sold Beats Music to Apple. While counting their billions, they are both still at unspecified roles at Apple. What are they? No one knows and the sale is nearly 6 months old. The fact is that Beats by Dre still has his name attached to his product. Beats Music is a spin-off of Beats by Dre. Dr. Dre is an integral part of that company. There is no way he "didn't know" what his company was doing to artists. He knew. He condoned it. He profited from it.
Back in 2000, Dr. Dre sued Napster because his music was being uploaded and shared onto that platform. Users were sharing his music for free and he received nothing. 14 years later, he's streaming the work of other musicians on his own platform and what is he paying them in return? Nothing.
Dude practically wrote my opening attack.
|"Yo, Dre! Are you a hypocrite or what?"|
Yes, I wrote it by hand on a notepad, took a picture of it with my cell phone, and posted it to Instagram. Short, sweet, and to the point. Despite my "fantasy" of this sparking a movement, I wasn't sure what to expect out of it or if anyone would really care. Dr. Dre is a musician/producer/entrepreneur who makes more in one minute than I do in an entire month. He is a billionaire and popular icon that has built an empire. I'm a poor, fat, hairy schmuck in debt up to my eyeballs.
It struck a chord. My friends felt strongly enough to share it. A friend of mine posted it to imgur with the caption "Dr. Dre is a hypocrite" that in a few days would become my hashtag. The imgur picture didn't have the details the Instagram or Facebook caption had, but it did spark a discussion. That was a start.
You called out Dr. Dre; what do you want?
As nice as money would be for my 53 streams, the market value is not worth the price of postage. This is about a basic principle: If you use my creative work, I should be paid for it. I did not release my album to build Dr. Dre's empire. This is what I'm looking for:
1.) The practice of Apple/Beats Music streaming music to "trial members" without compensating the artists who created it needs to end. If you play my music, I should be paid regardless of whether or not you are collecting money. It's one thing for me to decide to give away my music. It's another thing altogether for a multi-billion dollar corporation to give away my music.
2.) Musicians need to be aware this is happening. They have the highest stakes in this "game." They need to check their streaming reports and SPEAK UP! Apple and Beats Music will continue getting away with this as long as we and our fans let them.
3.) Consumers need to recognize that smaller level, independent artists are just as (if not more) affected by what is happening as the major label artists. There has been a lot of talk about the "greedy major record labels" getting their comeuppance for screwing their musicians and very little talk about independent artists like me who own all our rights. To be clear, the labels do me no favors with their "deals," but these tech companies - regardless of how good they are from a consumer standpoint - aren't exactly being good "partners" either. Apple used my music to expand their customer base and paid me nothing in return.
4.) Someone needs to tell Beats Music/Apple to fix the page on their knowledge base to more accurately reflect how they are "paying better royalties." Here is my correction:
|Aw, hell. I'll say it here: Beats Music TOTALLY lied.|
5.) Dr. Dre needs to answer to his peers - the musicians, not the billionaires. He needs to look musicians in the eye and explain how he can go from fighting against piracy to condoning and placing his name on a legalized incarnation of the same practice. I asked the question in my first Instagram post: "Did $3 Billion turn you into a hypocrite?"
As far as I'm concerned, you know what the answer is. If Dr. Dre would like to discuss this, I'm all ears. For now, though...
God Bless and All the Best,
T. Kareem Powell