The big royalty debate: what does a credit really mean in 2021?

In our year 2021, royalties have become more than an exchange of money; they are a public co-sign that says something deeper about the integrity of the artist. For this week’s subtweets, Jenessa Williams delves deeper into the credits handed out by Olivia Rodrigo and Drake.

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While half of Twitter is busy losing their minds over Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, the other half is obsessed with a different kind of royalty. A means of crediting those involved in the creation of a song — recording artists, songwriters, composers, publishers and more — royalties create a contract-of-permission, which ensures that everybody involved is duly compensated, getting paid for what is rightfully theirs.

Throughout musical history, royalties (and the distribution of them) have only really made news as a matter of lawsuits — see Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, which ended up forking out a whopping $7.3 million (later reduced to around £5 million) to the estate of Marvin Gaye for the interpolation of ‘Got to Give It Up’ in 2015, or Katy Perry’s ‘Dark Horse’, which went to trial for seven days in 2014 before ruling $2.78 million in similarity damages to Christian rapper Flame.

Aside from the financial implications, royalties also invoke an element of public perception. Somewhere along the line, our pop-cultural understanding of royalties has focused less on the legalities of doing business, and more about what the negotiation says about you as an artist; how honest, how creative, how ethical? Maybe it’s just because we notice them more now; sites like WhoSampled.com allow us to put our finger on that credit so much faster, or a quick Twitter search will likely throw up a viral thread that proves any similarities. On a deeper level, maybe it’s due to the changing perception of music as a capitalist commodity rather than a pure piece of art. Very few things in music – if any – can be wholly original anymore, and with serious financial disparities at play in the streaming age, maybe it’s only natural to go out for what you can get.

Olivia Rodrigo is an artist who has felt this more than most. Following her big breakthrough, the imagery and conceptual ideas behind ‘SOUR’ have been accused of pinching ideas from Courtney Love, Pom Pom Squad and even Elvis Costello, whose guitar riff from the 1978 track ‘Pump It Up’ is used on ‘Brutal’. Rodrigo has been vocal about her use of Taylor Swift’s work as a driving force, and has compensated accordingly — given away 50% of ‘Déjà Vu’’s writing credits – 25% to Taylor Swift, 20% to Jack Antonoff, and 5% to Annie Clark (St. Vincent) for the inspiration of their song ‘Cruel Summer’, as well as credits on ‘1 step forward, 2 steps back’ for the interpolation of Swift’s ‘New Year’s Day’.

Presumably due to the viral popularity of the fan-made mash-up, ‘good for ur misery business’, Rodrigo has this month put her hand in her pocket again; this time paying out an estimated $1.2 million worth of credits to Paramore’s Hayley Williams and ex-member Josh Farro in recognition of the inspiration of their pop-punk megahit ‘Misery Business’.

While the Swift payments (no pun intended) were broadly accepted by Rodrigo’s fanbase, the Paramore case seems to have broken the bank of goodwill. Many have directed serious anger at Williams for ‘exploiting’ Rodrigo, with some even claiming that she is being unfairly targeted for her race and age, coerced into signing away her rights to “rich white people”. Even fellow popstars have waded into the discourse, concerned that a moral panic over credits and lawsuits might lead to a dampening of creativity.

Without knowing who approached who or who kicked off about what, it’s difficult to know what the deal really is. Amidst the anger, the plot thickened; at very least in Paramore’s case, the royalties seem to have been offered rather than requested, debunking the idea of a greedy cash-in. Maybe somebody in management did twist Olivia’s arm to pay out now rather than risk a later (and much more costly) lawsuit a la Robin Thicke, or maybe it was a genuine gesture of honour on the young artist’s part, trying to share the fruits of her success with those who paved the way.

In Costello’s case, he graciously accepted Rodrigo’s usage without any mention of money: “this is how rock and roll works.” But if you look at the YouTube comments for ‘Pump It Up’, they’re full of people brought over via Rodrigo, and the streaming numbers have rocketed into the billions; not a bad way to re-introduce yourself to a new generation. Much of the press coverage and stan support has inadvertently painted Rodrigo as a poor defenceless popstar bullied into submission, but at risk of tin-hatting, what if this ‘here have some high-profile payout’ is actually a shrewd, mutually beneficial way to demonstrate to future collaborators just how much money and public attention they might stand to make? Could it be just a great marketing opportunity for everyone involved?

To look at another recent example, Canadian mega-rapper Drake might have similar ideas. If Rodrigo’s ‘SOUR’ draws on archetypes of frustrated teen angst, then in title alone, ‘Certified Lover Boy’ (released last week) sees Drake pulling lineage of the RnB-superstar-as-impenetrable-sex-God, a look that was once used to market none other than R Kelly. So much so in fact, that you can hear the orchestral arrangements of Kelly’s song ‘Half On A Baby’ in the introduction of Drake’s ‘TSU’, creating a writing royalty which, when you consider how well the album is currently performing commercially, will likely put significant funds back into the pocket of a man who is currently on trial for multiple sex trafficking and racketing offences. Released in the same week that Kanye West platformed both Marilyn Manson and DaBaby on ‘DONDA’ two of the most anticipated hip-hop albums of the year have ended up becoming more newsworthy for the slap in the face that they offer female fans and survivors.

Perhaps it is unfair in this instance to strictly compare Drake’s crediting decisions to Kanye’s. The writing credit that Drake has had to attribute is due to a spoken voice clip he uses in which a Kelly song can be heard playing in the background, rather the active ‘guest vocalist’ invitation that Kanye has extended to DaBaby and Manson. Responding to some of the criticisms, Drake’s producer ‘40’ even wrote about his own concerns with the credit, explaining that “to think we would stand beside that guy is just incredibly disgusting’. However, there was still the option to avoid the sample entirely, and by extension avoid contributing to the financial coiffures of an abusive artist, the normalisation of misogynistic platform, and the polarised discourse online which all conspires to monetised clicks, articles, debates and presence through which Drake still ultimately wins. We know full well that Drizzy is a marketing genius, so to give him the benefit of the doubt in this situation feels like a bit of a stretch.  

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By looking at these two examples, it seems that royalties can be a nice way to show homage, or a way to show how little you care, depending on how you use them. But both serve to benefit everyone involved in ways that can transcend money. When it comes to us fans, a lot of it comes down to a question of personal morality. Is streaming Drake’s song akin to putting R Kelly back on a platform? Do we applaud Olivia’s gesture as a kind and generous wealth-sharer, or a slippery slope towards over-crediting which makes young talents vulnerable to exploitation? Both questions create conversation, and as the old adage goes, all press is good press. But just because you can, does it really mean that you should? 


READ MORE: Courtney Love missed the point, Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Sour’ prom was a loving homage to teen cinema

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