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7th December 2021

Four Tet vs Domino Records – Why won’t record labels remunerate artists properly?

Kristin Cooper discusses the removal of electronic producer Four Tet’s albums from streaming services amid a legal dispute concerning royalties, highlighting the ongoing issue of record labels failing to properly remunerate artists for streaming revenue.
Four Tet vs Domino Records – Why won’t record labels remunerate artists properly?
Photo: Four Tet, Kmeron @ Flickr

On the 21st of November 2021, electronic producer Four Tet informed fans via social media that three of his albums had been removed from all streaming services by Domino Records. The albums that were removed are some of Four Tet’s releases from the 2000s, specifically, Rounds (2003), Everything Ecstatic (2005) and There Is Love In You (2010). His later albums, such as New Energy (2017) and Sixteen Oceans (2020), are still available, as they were released under his own record label Text Records.

This comes amid a legal battle between Four Tet (real name Kieran Hebden) and Domino Records regarding royalties. Hebden is disputing Domino Records’ 18% royalty rate, arguing that, for streaming, it should be 50%. Of course, when Hebden first signed his contract with Domino Records over 20 years ago, the nature of the music industry was very different. Back in 2001, CDs were still the primary method of consuming music and internet downloads were yet to be popularised by the introduction of the iPod and other similar devices to the market.

The contract did cover how records sold in new technological formats would be remunerated, stating these would receive 75% of the otherwise applicable rate, leaving Hebden with an effective rate of just 13.5%. Legally, this clause of the contract makes the situation difficult to dispute. However, Hebden has proceeded in seeking to claim up to £70,000 and costs over the claim for historical streaming royalties, as well as legal judgement on the 50% rate. One clause that Hebden and his lawyers may be able to use to win this dispute is that exploitation of the masters outside the UK would be remunerated at 50%. Thus, they could win a 50% royalty fee for all streaming outside the UK.

Regardless of the legal specifics of this case between Hebden and Domino Records, this highlights the ongoing conversation about the exploitative nature of outdated record label contracts. The music industry is exploitative of musicians, the exact people who create the content which its existence depends upon.

With the age of the internet, just as the way we consume music has been transformed over the last 20 years, so has the way we create, produce and market music. In the 1980s, record labels were crucial to the success of albums, as they coordinated the release of physical copies of records and tapes in stores across countries, as well as marketing artists and albums with billboard, TV and radio advertisement. Now, in the age of the internet, artists can independently promote albums via social media, garnering significant attention, which is free publicity that does not require funding from record labels. Artists do not need record labels in the same way they used to; they can find freelance producers, release their songs themselves and also market their work independently. If record labels like Domino Records wish to remain relevant, they need to start remunerating artists properly.

Personally, I am hoping to see more collective record labels established, like many seen in the DIY record label movement in the late 70s and early 80s. Hopefully, these will be record labels that are artist-owned and -run, primarily seeking to aid and promote the creativity of musicians, rather than treating them as profit-making machines. Big record labels are well-known for pressuring artists for additional albums and multiple tours, all whilst not giving them fair compensation for their popularity on streaming services.

Now, in 2021, this really needs to change; hopefully, this case—among others—will help change the behaviour of corporate record labels. Domino Records removing Four Tet’s albums from streaming services subsequent to the dispute proves the point that the vast majority of record labels are merely money-hungry capitalists, exploiting artists and commodifying a creative industry. As much as a world-renowned producer such as Four Tet probably does not need the money, it is necessary for big names in the music industry to fight these legal battles that smaller artists cannot afford to fight.

Of course, the record labels are ultimately only half the problem: the other evil is evidently the streaming services themselves. The likes of Spotify and Apple Music equally exploit artists but remain the easiest and cheapest ways for consumers to access vast quantities of music. Perhaps, as nice as it has been for the consumer, we ultimately need to accept that if we want to support the musicians we love, we may have to wave goodbye to subscriptions that cost as little as £5.99 a month.

In the meantime, one way most artists generate revenue is through the sale of physical records and merchandise, so if you can afford to purchase any of these, it helps the artists more directly: especially on Bandcamp Friday, when a larger percentage goes to the artist. When buying music, try to either support independent record stores or from sites such as Bandcamp; it helps the money go to people to maintain their livelihoods, instead of purchasing it off iTunes or from HMV.

If you’re feeling inspired to support some artists via Bandcamp, the next Bandcamp Friday is on the 3rd of December!

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