Exploring the royalty reform movement in 1950s and '60s R&B

Matt StahlWhile conducting research for his book Unfree Masters: Record Artists and the Politics of Work, FIMS Associate Professor Matt Stahl came across the 2002 testimony of soul singer Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) before a committee of the California State Legislature.

The committee was considering legislation that would make record company royalty accounting more transparent. (A watered-down version of the bill eventually passed and changed the rules in favour of recording artists.) Moore’s “impassioned” testimony – he’d passed retirement age and still needed to perform live to make a living, despite selling millions of records for Atlantic Records over a 30-year career – was “chilling,” says Stahl.

“When I finished Unfree Masters, I began to look into R&B royalties and discovered two things. First, Sam Moore was only one of a number of fearless and outspoken 1950s and ‘60s R&B and soul artists who had become impoverished, and whose royalty activism sparked a 20-year ‘royalty reform’ movement that galvanized journalists, lawmakers, civil rights activists, pro-bono attorneys, and major ‘90s pop stars and had some striking victories. Second, surprisingly, there was no scholarship directly engaging this movement, either in its individual episodes or its entirety.”

Speculating on the lack of scholarly inquiry, Stahl suggests there are several factors at play.
“For one thing, useful data is not easy to come by. Also, scholars whose work does come close to the issue typically address it obliquely, in the course of examining other phenomena, like how R&B interacted with the Civil Rights movement, or how copyright functions racially, or how gender norms shaped or were challenged by R&B and so on. And some of this existing research has been invaluable in helping me to learn about the contexts of these royalty issues. I do not think anybody failed in their scholarly work, just that the nitty gritty of contracts and royalty accounting is only now being recognized as interesting to humanities and social science scholars.”

What fascinates Stahl about the royalty reform movement is that it appears to be an episode of coordinated social action, in contrast to individual artists’ (often unsuccessful) individual attempts to regain royalties.

“The fact that these efforts and episodes focused directly on what [cultural anthropologist] Maureen Mahon calls the ‘racialized political economy’ of the recording industry makes royalty reform even more significant,” says Stahl, adding that, “the artists, journalists, attorneys and others involved demonstrate striking commitments to making meaningful changes to what they believed was a massively unjust system, for the benefit of a collectivity, an entire group of maltreated performers.”

In November 2015, as part of the 2015-16 FIMS #PublicInterest Lecture Series, Stahl presented a talk at the London Public Library’s Central branch titled “Rhythm, Royalties, & the Blues: 1950s R&B Performers’ Struggle for Unpaid Royalties.” The lecture was well received by a standing-room-only crowd who had a number of questions following his talk.

The reception of Stahl’s lecture indicates to him that “people care about these complicated problems of race, recognition, and economic justice in the world of popular music. I think people have strong beliefs about what is fair and what is unfair when it comes to how musicians are rewarded or not for their creative work. My sense is that this is because many people care especially deeply about music and often have very strong personal connections to it, and perhaps also because they see popular music as an arena where ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. To me, in that sense, popular music comes close to keeping the promises made by our society - that innovators will be rewarded, that people from any walk of life can achieve fame and fortune, that what we have to say (or sing) matters, that we can be authentically ourselves and economically successful at the same time.”

FIMS is supporting Stahl’s research by providing him with a grant he uses to pay an undergraduate research assistant and to travel to archives. His plans for 2016 include travelling to several archives in the United States to gather more data. Stahl acknowledges there are challenges to this research.

“A difficulty with research covering the mid and late 20th century is that, while some participants in the events are still alive, many are not,” Stahl says. “It’s wonderful to be able to speak on the record with participants when possible, but it’s not something you can count on. And people involved in controversial events - as well as their family members or friends - may have developed mistrust regarding anybody expressing an interest in their activities. With research such as this, a great deal of the relevant data will likely just never be accessible: many companies are defunct with no surviving archives, and companies that still exist, independently or as subsidiaries, typically want to keep business information private, especially when it involves racial or economic controversy. These are the challenges: the data may exist in multiple, corroborating forms, but that doesn’t mean that it is or will ever be accessible.”