Accounting for Injustice: AFTRA, Work & Singers' Royalities

Headshot Matt Stahl sitting outside amongst treesBy Carlina Green

June 2022

FIMS Associate Professor Matt Stahl originally quit academia to pursue his passion for making music and performing.

Professor Matt Stahl took a more creative route to arrive in academia than most people do.

In 1989 Matt dropped out of the University of California, Berkeley to devote himself to his rock band Little My. A vocalist and guitarist for the San Francisco Bay Area group, Stahl and his bandmates played shows and released original material over the next 10 years.

It wasn’t until his band broke up in 1997 that he decided to finish his degree. At 32 years old, Matt returned to Berkeley to complete his BA and realized he could combine doing the things he loved most—research and music. He began to research music-making in the San Francisco area as an undergraduate Haas Scholar research fellow. He completed his PhD in Communication at the University of California, San Diego in 2006.

Many years later, as an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University, Matt is still doing the things he loves. He recently hosted a joint conference of IASPM Canada and the Working In Music Research Network for popular music scholars from May 18-25 2022. Conference participants discussed what impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the “practices and institutions of music making and music partaking.”

Did you know?

The IASPM Canada/Working in Music Research Network conference featured a keynote presentation from William Cheng, Professor of Music at Dartmouth College, whose own scholarship has become must-read for anyone interested in the crossover of music and social justice.

Matt has been studying various aspects of the music industry throughout his tenure at Western University. He’s studied the genealogy of the recording contract in depth, and he published a book titled Unfree Masters: Recording Artists and the Politics of Work in 2013.

More recently, Matt has partnered with Olufunmilayo Arewa, a Professor of Law at Temple University in Philadelphia, to research recorded music, race and royalties. Together, they have uncovered a troubling system that has a long history of underpaying or not paying Black musicians for their work. They co-authored an article in May 2021 on the subject, titled “Denying Black musicians their royalties has a history emerging out of slavery.” They have also contributed chapters to research handbooks on music and law for Oxford University Press and Hart Publishing which will be published this year.

African American musicians in the United States have been underpaid for about a century, Matt says. His research points to unions and record labels engaging in fraudulent or negligent practices that have denied Black artists their fair compensation.

“The most interesting part of it is that everybody knew that Black musicians were underpaid. But nobody had ever actually tried to study it systematically,” he says.

Zeroing in on archives, including those of the Health and Retirement Funds of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), Matt and Olufunmilayo bring to light how the unions and record labels had failed to monitor earnings and royalties and neglected to make contributions to the healthcare and retirement accounts of musicians. They looked specifically at soul singer Sam Moore’s lawsuit from the 1990s as one example of a Black musician who was denied fair compensation (and, as a result, health care and retirement benefits) for his work. After a nine-year legal battle, Moore and other complainants settled with AFTRA H&R Funds.

Matt and his collaborator Olufunmilayo Arewa are hopeful that their work on these problems will contribute to changes in the way that accounting records are kept and tracked across the music industry, ensuring that artists receive proper compensation.

For more information about Matt visit his FIMS faculty profile.


This profile is part of a series written by graduate students in MMJC 9604 Professional Writing, during the Winter 2022 term. Profiles have been edited by FIMS Communications staff for clarity.