One example of this tension is the Los Angeles pop duo Frenship.
In 2016, the group, featuring Brett Hite and James Sunderland, had a breakout hit with “Capsize,” recorded with the singer and songwriter Emily Warren. Frenship released the song independently, and it was quickly added to a prominent playlist on Spotify. “Capsize” notched 40 million streams in 10 weeks, yielding $150,000 in payments, the group said.
“Spotify gave us our career,” Hite said in an interview.
Then the group signed with Columbia Records, which started a radio promotion campaign around “Capsize.” The song failed to crack the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but it remained a steady streaming success, now at about 570 million clicks on Spotify. The band declined to disclose specific details of its time at Columbia — in its separation agreement with the label in 2018, it agreed to confidentiality — but Hite encapsulated his time in the majors with an anecdote about shopping for a car in the months after “Capsize” took off.
“I’m looking at BMWs, and then when I start doing the breakdown I ended up leasing a Honda CR-V,” he said. “I’ll let that be the narrative for where our hit song got us.” The group is now preparing its next release independently.
Columbia declined to comment.
Despite artists’ gripes about their labels, contracts at the major record companies have been evolving steadily in recent years in ways that benefit performers. Joint-venture deals and shorter commitments are now more common, according to music executives, lawyers and artist managers.
And the all-important royalty rate is going up, too. A study by Steven S. Wildman of Michigan State University in 2002 that looked at hundreds of major-label contracts from that time found that, on average, artists getting their first contract from a label were offered royalty rates of 15 percent to 16 percent. Speaking to the Parliamentary committee in January, Tony Harlow, the chief executive of Warner Music UK, said that since 2015, the company’s royalty payments to artists have “raised from 27 to 32 percent.”