The tale of producer Kieran Hebden A.K.A Four Tet’s ongoing battle with his former label Domino Recordings has another twist as, finally, his three classic albums are now returning to streaming sites.
As a genre-bending electronic producer, Four Tet’s eclectic productions and remixes have made him a name that will be more than familiar to many. However, for months fans were unable to stream three of his early albums released by Domino. As part of an occasionally bitter legal spat between the artist and his former label, the albums were dramatically pulled from all streaming services, sparking furore from fans and blowing open a whole debate about the ethics of streaming royalties.
Let's rewind the story back to 2001. This was long before streaming sites like Spotify came along and revolutionised the music industry, back when people would buy physical copies of music on strange devices called “CDs”. Back then, the other big way artists made money from their music is through licensing.
After Hebden adopted the Four Tet moniker, he was starting to make waves in the underground electronic music scene with the release of his debut album ‘Dialogue’. For his second album, Four Tet released on a bigger, but still independent, label – Domino. His new contract with the label divvied up how royalties from his music would be split. Crucially to this case, he was to be paid 18% for sales of physical media like vinyl, cassettes and CDs and 50% for licensing.
When streaming burst onto the scene years later, the money made from this didn’t fit especially neatly into either category. It's certainly not a physical item and has none of the costs associated with creating and distributing physical media but it's also not strictly speaking licensing. Regardless of this, Domino decided to simply pay Hebden the 18% he would have made if it were physical copies instead.
The start of the legal action
When arguments start getting into complex issues of semantics and pawing over contracts with a fine-tooth comb, you can be sure lawyers start getting very interested. 20 years after pen was first put to paper on that fateful document, Hebden commenced legal action against the label. He claimed that he should be paid an increased royalty rate of 50% for streams and is also seeking £70,000 in damages over lost earnings.
Because of the legal proceedings, like a petulant child taking their football home, Domino removed Pause (2001), Rounds (2003) and Everything Ecstatic (2005) from streaming sites. Calling it out as a move to ‘stop the case progressing’, Hebden was personally upset that his quest for fairer pay for artists had resulted in his (presumably now former) friends taking such strong action against him.
His argument revolves mainly around the fact that streaming is not the same thing as sales of physical formats and should not be treated the same financially. There’s a lot of ambiguity and legal grey areas being exploited. Terms like ‘fair’ and ‘equitable’ are highly open to individuals’ interpretations of what they believe to be right.
Demands for fair pay over streaming
His calls for fairer pay for musicians have been echoed not just by his fans or fellow artists but even as high up as MP Kein Brennan who retweeted Four Tet’s call to “make changes where we can”.
The notion that streaming sites need to pay artists a significantly larger percentage is being echoed as high up as the DCMS committee. Their inquiry into the economics of streaming found ‘fundamental problems with the structuring of the recorded music industry itself.’ They also are making calls for reforms to record labels to split streaming royalties 50/50 with their artists.
What now for Four Tet?
After ditching his old label, Hebden has recently signed a deal with Universal Music Group to publish his music. It may have come as a surprise to those following the case closely that, after a lengthy dispute about fair pay and label influence, he would sign with a major label powerhouse, which are often known for paying artists a smaller percentage of royalties.
Whether his music returning to streaming sites was directly related to this new deal or just Domino choosing to relent, remains unclear. It's also not known what kind of royalty rate Hebden is getting from this new deal although, after all of the costly legal rigamarole he’s been through, he might be hoping for a little more than 18%.
What next for streaming?
So while the latest bit of good news regarding Four Tet’s albums offers a slim slice of hope, resolutions to the larger issues seem much further off. The case is set to go to trial later in the year, with a verdict that could shape the face of the music industry for all artists. This is undoubtedly a case that could set a powerful precedent for not just all artists on Domino, but quite possibly all other independent labels like it. This could be the first step in dismantling the immense power structures of major labels and streaming services in a positive step towards fairer pay for artists.
If all of this has gotten you rather worried about what you need to do as an artist, we’ve got you covered – top music lawyer Richard Hoare came in for one of our live sessions where he gave his top tips on how to keep everything above board as an artist.