Dance Music Singers Rarely Get Paid
DJs are making a killing these days as electronic dance music (EDM) is one of the most lucrative sectors of the music industry. Top DJs can demand £50,000 to £100,000 for a gig – and, unlike touring rock acts, they have hardly any overheads. But the scene is hiding a shameful secret – the women who write the melodies and lyrics to the dance hits, as well as sing them, claim they rarely get paid for their work.
In the early 1990s, Milli Vanilli and C+C Music Factory found themselves in the midst of a scandal when it was revealed that the vocalists fronting the acts were just lip-synching to other singers’ vocals on some tracks. Martha Wash, the actual singer of C+C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat, even sued the label for proper credit and royalties, Milli Vanilli had to hand back their Grammy, and the US introduced rules making it mandatory to credit correct vocals on CDs and videos, in the aftermath.
While the pop sector has largely cleaned up its act since then, little has changed in for EDM acts. The featured singers on many club hits, most of whom have also written the “toplines” (melody and lyrics), often find themselves being replaced by someone younger and “prettier” for videos and tours, while seeing no royalties at all.
One such singer is Antonia Lucas who, after decades of feeling devalued and disrespected by club music producers and labels, decided to set up the Vocalist Songwriters Alliance (VSA).
Lucas’s first introduction to the business, almost 20 years ago, was a session for a prominent garage producer. What she thought would be the recording of one track turned out to be a long line of producers coming in, one after the other, with beats without music. Lucas was required to make up melodies and lyrics on top of the beats. “Twelve records came out of that session – six of which were hits – and all I received was £200 and no writing credits,” she says, adding that some of the tracks are still being issued.
Last year she started a Facebook group for singer-songwriters in the sector, and within days the group had over 60 members, all describing similar experiences.
The VSA now has 300 members. One of them is artist and songwriter CoCo Star (real name Susan Brice). In 1996, Brice’s track I Need a Miracle was released by Greenlight Recordings in the US and became a club hit. It was then re-recorded and released on EMI’s Positiva imprint in the UK a year later.
In 1999, a British DJ mashed up her vocals from the song with German act Fragma’s track Toca Me. The mash-up was released without Brice’s permission on a bootleg white label for which she was never paid. This sparked a buzz in the clubs, and Fragma released their own version of the bootleg, Toca’s Miracle, on Tiger Records in Germany and Positiva in the UK in 2000. It went to No 1 in 14 countries worldwide.
“[Toca’s Miracle] has reportedly sold more than 3m copies, but I’ve never been paid for any of these remixes,” claims Brice. She says that her vocal was credited to Fragma, alleging that an impostor touring as the singer collected her PPL airplay royalties until six months ago.
PPL collects performance royalties for recordings, when they’re played in public, such as in clubs and on the radio. Of the money it collects, 50% goes to the owner of the recording (usually the label), 45% to the featured artist (usually the singer), and the remaining 5% to the non-featured musicians.
Its registration for Toca’s Miracle includes a number of studio programmers as “featured artists” as well as another vocalist. Brice is registered as a non-featured artist at a rate of 1%.
Tiger Records, claims it owns the copyright to Toca’s Miracle, but it has so far failed to produce any sample agreement, licensing agreement or assignment agreement to Brice’s label, Universal Music.
Brice alleges that this is because what they used is a bootleg, with her vocal sourced from an illegal file-sharing site.
When asked about the Fragma Toca’s Miracle dispute, a spokesperson for Universal Music Group, which bought EMI last year, said: “There’s quite a long chain of contracts behind this, starting with Susan’s original deal with Greenlight, which we’re looking into so wouldn’t want to comment until we’ve got to the bottom of it.”
Brice is not the only featured artist to have had such problems with Fragma. Kirsty Hawkshaw, former frontperson of Opus III, who’s hit It’s a Fine Day went to No 2 in the UK charts in 1992, co-wrote and sang Fragma’s Radio Waves, but hasn’t received any royalties for it. “They never signed a contract with me,” she says.
Hawkshaw wrote to iTunes about the dispute, and it promptly took the track down, but she says she has no money to hire a lawyer. Like many other artists I’ve spoken to, she also fears being threatened and blacklisted for speaking out.
Both artists have had similar experiences with other EDM producers and labels. “Susan and I could have probably made a million, considering all the compilations that have featured our songs,” says Hawkshaw, who has also joined the VSA.
“The producers are not all necessarily choosing to be rogues, unfair and dishonest,” says Lucas. “Some are just ignorant regarding how the industry works.”
Hawkshaw concurs. When confronting a producer who had done a mash-up using her vocal, he claimed he had done “millions” of mash-ups and nobody ever told them they needed permission, adding that he had not taken credit or sold it – and so had not abused the artists’ rights. “I said, ‘If I used your backing track to promote myself without your permission, you wouldn’t be happy with me,'” she says.
All VSA members have reported not receiving royalty statements from the record labels selling their work – and being “stonewalled” when challenging them on it. Lucas says that this kind of behaviour breaks down the individual – Brice says she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result – and that many members considered leaving the industry, before finding out that they were not alone.
“Some of the biggest DJs out there are doing it [to their featured vocalist/co-writers],” she says. “They’re making the most money, yet they expect to pay the least. They believe they’re superior to us – but without us, what would the fans be singing?”