Conflicts Between Record Labels and Musical Artists

By: Miles Delis, Picardy Lamour, Kyle Ryan, and Joe Stein


  1. Overview:
  2. The history of modern music is filled with disputes between musical artists and their respective record labels or producers. For as long as record companies have existed, there have been artists who are unhappy with the treatment they receive. Some feuds between artists and record labels arise from disputes over money, or the rights to other royalties that have been earned from their music. Often, artists feel that they are being cheated out of money that is rightfully theirs by producers or other executives who run the record company. Other disputes have arisen because artists have wanted to opt out of contracts that are unfavorable to them. These conflicts usually arise when the record label refuses to void the contract. One other notable cause of disputes is the record companies’ treatment of the artists. Artists who feel as if they are not being treated well will often attempt to switch record labels or even start their own. It is important to note that these few reasons are not the only catalysts for feuds between musicians and businesses. In reality, a variety of things can lead to the start of a fight between the two parties.
    These conflicts are interesting because they can sometimes lead to noticeable changes in artists’ music. Artists are put under a significant amount of stress during altercations with their management, and this occasionally manifests itself in the music that they produce. In some cases, the artist will produce a different quantity of music because the terms of their contract may have changed. Another change that may be noticed is the tone or style of their music. Although the change in style may not always be attributable to the conflict, it is interesting to try and observe the correlation between the music an artist produces and the coinciding events in their lives. The rest of this presentation will explain and analyze several notorious battles.
  3. Michael Jackson vs. Sony Music Entertainment
  4. In October of 2001, Michael Jackson released his album, Invincible. The release of the album coincided with a dispute between Jackson and his record label, Sony Music Entertainment. The dispute originated from Jackson's inability to obtain the masters to his original albums, despite the fact that he believed that he possessed this right in his contract with Sony. If Jackson owned the licenses, he would have been able to promote his own material and receive the profits from these original works. However, due to concealed clauses in the contract, Sony owned the masters to his original albums for several more years. After launching an investigation, Jackson discovered that the attorney who represented him also represented Sony, creating a conflict of interest. Jackson also voiced concern that Sony was pressuring him to buy his music catalog. He was hesitant to take this action because if his career began to fail, he would be forced to sell his share of the catalog at a low price, thus benefiting Sony and therefore providing Sony incentive for Jackson's career to start failing. Just before the release of his album Invincible, Jackson used these allegations to abort his contract with Sony. As a result, all single releases, video shootings, and promotions provided by Sony and associated with Invincible were suspended. Nevertheless, the album was a success as it sold 13 million copies worldwide. The album spawned four singles, but they were all limited releases. For example, the single, "Cry," was not released in the US and consequently had moderate chart success as a result. In 2002, at a fan appreciation event in London, Jackson revealed details of his dispute with Sony and his strong dislike for the head of Sony, Tommy Mottola. Jackson claimed that Sony had purposely stopped promoting Invincible 5 months before the release of the album and that Tommy Mottola was the "devil" because of his past history of exploiting artists, especially African American performers. Because the music had already been produced when this conflict arose, there is no effect on the music that can be reasonably attributed to the fight. Still, the title of the song below, although unintentional, seems to be very appropriate for the situation as a whole.
  5. Dr. Dre vs. Death Row Records
  6. In 1992, Dr. Dre and Suge Knight founded Death Row Records. In a move that greatly changed the hip hop landscape, Dr. Dre left Death Row Records in 1996 and created his own label, Aftermath Entertainment, claiming that Knight was financially corrupt. Shortly after leaving NWA in 1991, Dr. Dre created his most successful album, The Chronic, while under the Death Row label. At the time Dr. Dre left Death Row Records, the label had sold over 18 million albums and dominated the charts. In addition to financial corruption, Dr. Dre and Knight disagreed over the creative direction of the label. After creating Aftermath, Dr. Dre found enormous success signing artists such as Eminem and 50 cent. Recently, in 2014, Dr. Dre sued Death Row Records over unpaid royalties from the use of his album, The Chronic. In the lawsuit, Dr. Dre claimed Death Row issued new orders of The Chronic and a greatest hits collection without his approval. The court ruled in favor of Dr. Dre and as a result Dr. Dre is entitled to 100 percent of the royalties from digital sales of his debut album. Again, this dispute arose after the music had already been made, so there is no observable effect.
  7. Dr. Dre - Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang
  8. Prince vs. Warner Brothers
  9. Prince signed a deal with Warner Brothers in 1978, and produced countless hits throughout the 1980s. In 1992, Prince became unhappy with his contract because it greatly limited the number of albums that he could release in a given time period. Prince wanted greater control over his music career, and he desired to put out many more albums than his contract allowed. As a means of protest, Prince adopted a symbol as his performing name, and began performing with the word “slave” written on his cheek. Warner Brothers eventually ended the contract, and under the new arrangement Prince financed and produced all of his own albums, and released them when he wished under his label NPG Records. The difference between music produced under Warner Brothers and music produced by Prince can mostly be seen in the quantity. With Warner Brother, he put out on average one album per year. Once he could produce his own music, however, he began to release many more albums. In 1996, Prince released “Emancipation,” the name of which clearly referenced his newfound “freedom” from Warner Brothers. The effects of this dispute were therefore two-fold: Prince was able to produce as much music as he would like, and an entire album was inspired by the debacle. In fact, the final song on the album, fittingly named “Emancipation,” is a funky, upbeat song that seems to celebrate his new-found freedom.
  10. ‘N Sync vs. Trans Continental
  11. ‘N Sync brought suit against Lou Pearlman and his record company, Trans-Continental, on the grounds that Pearlman had illegally scammed the group out of more than half their earnings. When “N Sync threatened to leave the label and sign with Jive Records, Pearlman counter-sued for the rights to the name of the group, but a settlement was made out of court and “N Sync eventually signed with Jive. After settling their legal issues, the group produced “No Strings Attached,” which was their most successful album to date. The music on the album seems more upbeat and confident than their previous tracks, such as “Tearin’ Up My Heart.” This newfound confidence may have been partially rooted in their split from Trans-Continental, and they may have viewed it as a fresh start for their music. “Bye Bye Bye” seems to have a second meaning; “N Sync is bidding farewell to their old record label. The song “It’s Gonna Be Me” is representative of the music on “No Strings Attached.” It embodies the powerful, confident style that “N Sync uses throughout the album, and the lyrics which include the title of the song are delivered with a conviction that will stick in the listener’s mind long after the music has stopped.
  12. Nsync - Tearin Up My Heart
  13. 'N Sync - It's Gonna Be Me (Official Video)
  14. Johnny Cash vs. Columbia Records
  15. Cash was essentially at the peak of his career after his successful hit single “Ring of Fire.” The album, “Walk the Line,” was very catchy and had a folk and country feel to it. On his next album, however,Cash decided to go in a different direction. “Bitter Tears” was a Native American themed album filled with many political songs, and it was not tailored toward a wide audience. Because of this, his record label did not think that the album had much production value. One of the singles off the album, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” focused on the poor treatment of veterans in society. It was a valuable message, but not one that the public enjoys hearing while listening to music. As a result, Columbia refused to provide any support or publicity for the single, saying that Cash should “entertain, not educate.” Cash then decided to promote the song completely on his own by reaching out to DJs of radio stations and encouraging them to play the album. The album was a success, and he even posted an open letter to record labels inquiring; “Where are your guts?” Despite this conflict, Cash remained on Columbia Records until the 1980s. The conflict shows how a record label can be opposed to certain acts of personal expression by their very own artists, which can hurt their careers.Luckily, in this case, neither Cash’s career nor his music were adversely affected by the actions of Columbia.
  16. Johnny Cash The Ballad of Ira Hayes
  17. Pink Floyd vs. EMI Music
  18. The dispute between Pink Floyd and EMI Music arose in 2010 over a question of how their music could legally be distributed and downloaded. EMI Music has been the record label of Pink Floyd for over forty years. Pink Floyd did not want their songs to be downloaded individually; instead they wanted each of their albums to remain a complete vision or story. The court case was decided in 2011 with a ruling in favor of EMI Music. Although Pink Floyd was reimbursed for legal costs, EMI retained the rights to sell individual songs made by the band. This conflict exemplifies a record label winning the battle, but at the cost of destroying an artist’s true vision of what their music should be. In this case, Pink Floyd wanted their albums to remain whole pieces of art, but EMI disrupted this vision because of their desire to sell more music. The song below is off of Pink Floyd’s album “The Wall.”
  19. Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) - Pink Floyd
  20. LL Cool J vs. Def Jam Records
  21. In recent years, the famous rapper LL Cool J has become very critical of his label Def Jam Records. He has been with the record since the 1980’s, but as soon as he thought they crossed the line, he did not hesitate to say it: “When you talk about Def Jam, you are talking about my legacy” ( The rapper even claimed that the record label is calling out radios and telling them not to play his songs. Such accusations are important because they emphatically demonstrate the lack of trust that can exist between artists and labels. The song that best depicts the reaction of the rapper is “ Queens” which is his way of doubting the promotion of his album “Exit 13.” After all, LL Cool J is the face of Def Jam but their relationship has become strained because of this feud.
  22. Ll Cool J - Queens (feat. 50 Cent, Mopp Deep, Tony Yayo & Kool G Rap)
  23. Toni Braxton vs. Laface Records