Beyoncé-Kelis drama is a window into an age-old problem in the music industry

OPINION: Kelis’ comments left me with questions about the ways artists relate to each other and the ways they get screwed over. 

Beyoncé, left (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Disney); Kelis (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Spotify)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Beyoncé’s new album Renaissance has flowed into my life like a ray of sonic sunshine. It’s so fun, so house, so club and so dance, and there are so many moments of total ear candy—the pre-chorus on “Move”: “Me and my girlfriends came out to play! Fireworks and champagne/Chantilly lace…” or the soulful beat on “Break My Soul.” The song “Energy” is yet another heat rock on an album full of them, but that one led to some controversy that’s opened up Pandora’s box for me as someone who’s been watching the music industry for decades. I don’t look at this as gossip. I see it as a window into the world of recording artists and the people who determine who gets paid for their music.

The original version of “Energy” interpolated Kelis’ iconic song “Milkshake,” which led to an angry reaction by Kelis on Instagram. Beyoncé removed the interpolation from the song, but Kelis’ comments still left me with questions about the ways artists relate to each other and the ways they get screwed over. 

One of Kelis’ central complaints is that Beyoncé did not call her to tell her she had sampled her. She’s not talking about officially clearing the song—that would go through lawyers and execs before it landed on Kelis’ desk (if she owned some of the publishing for the song). She’s talking about what she called “common decency,” one artist giving another a heads up that they used their thing. A nod of respect. 

I was not aware that it was customary in the music business for one star to call another and say, “Hey, I used your song to make a new one.” Is that the way it is in the club of major recording artists? Kelis asserts that it is—she names a singer who called her after using her music—but I had never heard of this custom before. I called a few friends, longtime music business execs and artists, to get some understanding. These folks spoke on background because they’re not directly involved in either side of the “Energy” situation. (I also called Pharrell’s people who declined to comment.) My friends—people who have helped me understand the intricacies of the music business in the past—all said that if two artists have any sort of relationship or friendship then yes, it’s normal to make a call like that. But if you two are not friends then there’s no obligation or expectation of such a call. That call is not about money. It’s about showing respect.

If Kelis did not know about the song until it was released that means Beyoncé and her team did not have to clear it with Kelis, which means she’s got no writing credits—anyone who’s credited as a writer on a song has to sign off for the new song to be cleared. Kelis, on Instagram, said Pharrell “swindled” her out of her publishing rights. Kelis does not have a writing credit on “Milkshake.” The writers on that song are credited as Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo—the Neptunes. We will probably never know whether Pharrell and Chad are the only true writers of “Milkshake.” We’ll probably never know how much or how little Kelis contributed to that record, but she has been talking about losing her publishing to Pharrell for years. In 2020 she told the Guardian she made nothing from the sales of her first two albums, which were wholly produced by the Neptunes because she was “blatantly lied to and tricked.” She told the Guardian that she was promised a three-way split but the contracts were written differently. She said, “Their argument is: ‘Well, you signed it.’ I’m like: ‘Yeah, I signed what I was told, and I was too young and too stupid to double-check it.’”

It’s not uncommon for singers to help write a song for their own album and then see their songwriting credit erased. There’s a long, sad history of younger artists signing away their publishing or having more experienced people elbow them off of credits. One example: Prince’s longtime bassist Brown Mark said in his recent autobiography My Life In the Purple Kingdom that he did significant work on Prince’s classic “Kiss” that went uncredited. He told me in an interview on my podcast Toure Show that if he’d gotten even a small piece of that song he’d be set for life financially, so there’s a lot at stake when we get into who’s credited with writing a song. And it’s not just publishing that bigger artists sometimes take from smaller ones—it’s not unusual for big pop stars, the people who are the backbone of the industry, to take melodies, beats, dances or fashion ideas from smaller artists who aren’t in a position to complain. The old saying “good artists borrow, great artists steal” is part of the music industry, too. Kelis alludes to this, saying Beyoncé “has stolen from me before.” 

One thing that my friends saw in Kelis’ comments was an anger that many artists are feeling. It’s very hard to make a living as a recording artist nowadays—for every Beyoncé who’s worth nearly half a billion, there are 10,000 singers who are barely middle-class or are outright struggling. It costs a lot of money to make an album, and in the current model, artists are expected to give music away for free—the virtual pennies they get from streaming services are all but giving it away. Nowadays, the only place most artists make real money is from touring or if they can use their artistry to spiral into an ancillary business like Rihanna did using her fame and cache to build Fenty. 

But that whole hamster wheel of creating music in order to make money in other ways is unsustainable for most. Many artists are upset about the industry making it hard for them to make money doing what they love to do—make music. Kelis’ anger about the way the industry functions is not an outlier. Many artists feel the same. I’ve seen that anger bubbling for a while—years ago, a very successful artist told me that the label owed them somewhere between $5 million and $10 million. They had been so upset about it for so long that they were numb. My first question was how could an artist be that uncertain of how much they’re owed? How could you not know whether your employer owes you $5 million or $10 million? 

Well, that’s partly because the industry’s payment and accounting practices are opaque. When you release an album, guess who counts how many records you’ve sold—the label. That number informs how much you earn but labels are not incentivized to be honest and pay artists everything they’re owed. Several people have told me over the years that being a recording artist is like doing a job and having your paycheck go to your boss, not to you. You never even get to see it. Your boss tells you how much you made and then pays you. Would you feel comfortable in that system? Many recording artists are sick of it all.

At the end of Kelis’ Instagram thoughts, she says “Something needs to change,” and she’s right. Artists aren’t being treated fairly by the industry, but we’re in a world where artists have more ability than ever to get their music directly to people. I wonder if in years to come we’ll see artists start circumventing the traditional system and distributing music themselves and finding ways to make sure they feel respected.


Touré hosts the podcast “Touré Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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