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Tactical destabilization for economic justice: the first phase of the 1984–2004 rhythm & blues royalty reform movement

Matt Stahl

Keywords: record royalties; rhythm & blues; racial and economic justice; popular music; recording contract

Abstract

This article examines an early (1980s) phase in a two-decade effort towards ‘royalty reform’ in the US recording industry, whereby ageing African American rhythm & blues performers sought to redress systematic underpayment of record royalties. The record companies to which these performers had signed in the 1940s and 1950s had contractually obligated themselves to provide biannual statements of royalty accounts, and to pay artists record royalties, once initial costs had been recouped. Yet this is rarely how things turned out, and many performers found themselves broke and vulnerable as they reached retirement age, even though many of their records had remained in print and selling for decades.

Drawing conceptually on critical race theory and social science scholarship, and empirically on primary source and archival documents, the article outlines the 1950s recording industry's ‘racialized political economy’ and offers an account of singer Ruth Brown and attorney Howell Begle's innovative and successful effort to narrate a counter-history of fraudulent accounting practices and casual racism that helped pressure companies like Warner Communications, MCA and Capitol/EMI into forgiving old production debts, renegotiating 40-year-old contracts, and paying millions of dollars in restitution through the formation and funding of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.

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