‘No One Should Own You’: Pharrell Williams Slams Record Labels for ‘Owning’ Artists, Turning Contract Advances Into Crippling ‘Debt’

The topic of ownership in the music industry has blown up in the past two decades as more artists seek to control use of their creative works. Music producer Pharrell Williams is one of many artists who have voiced concerns about how the industry profits from the work of artists while oftentimes leaving creators with nothing to claim ownership of.

While speaking at the two-day UnitedMasters Selectcon digital conference, Williams stated that not only should artists own their creations, but that no person should be the property of an overseer of any kind. 

UnitedMasters founderSteve Stoute (left) and Pharrell Williams (right) discuss ownership in the music industry. (Photo: @stevestoute/Instagram)

“No one should own you. No one should own your actions. No one should own your creations but you,” Williams said while in conversation with Steve Stoute, the founder of the UnitedMasters music distribution service.

He continued, “We’re so used to getting owned in some way, shape or form. You know, our debts are owned. Sometimes you find you’re paying a debt to one person you thought you was actually paying it to somebody else, but somebody else bought that debt. We’re really good at that in this country. It’s like the concept of, like, ownership.”

Artists have long complained that the music business turns them into property. In 2015, Prince, who had a long history of fighting to own and control his music, told Rolling Stone magazine he would advise any young artist not to sign a major recording deal.

“Record contracts are just like — I’m gonna say the word — slavery,” Prince said. 

Last year rapper-producer Kanye West shared his own record contracts with Universal Music Group to social media, claiming them to be exploitative. 

While being trapped into contracts that glitter like gold at first glance is part of the problem, Williams added that record companies fronting large amounts of money into an artist or project simply creates a debt — one that many acts struggle to get from under before seeing actual profits.

“You shouldn’t walk into a company and say, ‘I’m gonna make this record.’ They give you an advance, then for the tenure of that, the entire time your album’s out, you’re working to pay back that advance.” 

Stoute interrupted: “It’s illegal.”

Williams continued by stating, “No bank gives a company a loan to start a company and walks away with the trademarks.”

While Williams ostensibly is advocating for artists now, singer Kelis has said that wasn’t exactly his stance while working with her. According to the “Milkshake” singer, Williams and his producing partner Chad Hugo — together known as the Neptunes — left her high and dry after completing two albums.

“I was told we were going to split the whole thing 33/33/33, which we didn’t do,” Kelis told The Guardian last year. “[I was] blatantly lied to and tricked [by] the Neptunes and their management and their lawyers and all that stuff.”

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