Why Artistes Leave Record Labels and Why Most Careers Suffer After


In 2014, shortly after the release of his sophomore project “Ayo” and a protracted online and offline rift with his then label executives, Ayodeji “Wizkid” Balogun left Empire Mates Entertainment (EME), the music outfit co-owned by Bankole Wellington and Tunde Demuren, which Signed Wizkid in 2009. At the time of his departure from the Label, Wizkid had conquered the Nigerian music scene and was at the cusp of his eventual global recognition, however, it is reported that he left the label in financial distress. 

Banky W and Wizkid perform on stage
Wizkid and Banky W perform on stage. Photo from Daily Post

In a video interview that surfaced and was circulated online around October 2019, Wizkid stated he had to leave the record label without a penny due to his realization that he had reached the stage where he had to move forward from the label. 

He was quoted as saying, “I literally had to leave with zero naira and I was Wizkid like… I had to leave because I’m just like man, I can’t keep doing this. It was a great time in my life because I’m thankful to God and Banky W for everything he’s done for me, but you know at some point, you’ll get to a stage where you want to move forward”. 

Wizkid would not be the first artiste to tout “growth” as the reason for exiting the label that shot them to the limelight. Circa 2007/2008, Afrobeats and Afropop legend, Tuface Idibia (now known and referred to as TuBaba) left Kennis Music, years later he would famously state, “I left Kenny’s Music to start Hypertek Entertainment, my label. I had to grow. I am not going to be under a label forever. I had to grow on my own as well. My contract expired and I had to go”. 

Following and preceding the steps of Tubaba and Wizkid, various artistes like Reekado Banks, Lil Kesh, Vector, Brymo, Runtown, Cynthia Morgan, etc. have all left their labels for different reasons, ranging from lack of promotion, growth, contract expiration, or artistic differences. 

Why Artistes Leave 

Brymo dragged it out with Chocolate City for years
Nigerian singer, Brymo. Photo from Super Fans

Masked behind the glitz, glam and flashing lights of the music industry lies one of the most lopsided contract structures known to modern business. Lawyers both locally and internationally remain baffled at the exploitative nature of record agreements; usually, these contracts are often characterized by low royalty rates for Artistes while vesting ownership of records on the Label, with little or no chance of the musical artiste owning the recording masters to their songs. This phenomenon is not limited to the Nigerian music industry, when global music and fashion Icon, Kanye West leaked the details of his recording contract to Twitter in 2020, observers commented on the unfair nature of the contract, even more, concerning is that due to his musical stature, Kanye West’s record contract is at good as it gets for signed artistes. 

Kanye West gives details of his music contracts
Photo from Daily Mail

On a global average, at best Artistes get 18% – 22% on royalties for their songs, and this is after the Label has recouped their advance and recording costs, for Artistes who rank lower on the totem pole, they are left to scrap for 10 – 15% of their record earnings. The situation is even direr for artistes who were relatively unknown before signing these agreements as they are more than likely signed to “developmental 360 deals” where record labels/management outfits recoup their investments from all economic endeavors of the artistes, including but not limited to the song sales, streaming revenue, concert fees, tour revenue, endorsement deals or other gigs like movie roles. 

Added to the recording costs and advance to be recouped by the labels, seemingly generous gifts of cars, clothes, bling, and houses seen to be given to the artiste as part of the Label’s goodwill are all expenses and debt on the Artiste, from which the Label will recoup from. 

In 2014, Tubaba was quoted saying “People talk about Kenny’s Music buying me this and that while I was on that label… Yes, It’s true but one thing most artistes don’t understand about a record label is that they buy you a house, they buy you a car but it’s all debt. You are still going to pay back. For me, I didn’t do that kind of thing”. 

It is not hard to imagine that, despite his massive records, endorsements, and packed-out shows, the structure of music contracts could still leave Wizkid penniless in 2014. What is most certain is that whatever amount of revenue Wizkid generated from his time at a record label, the label made four times off him. Seeing the exploitative nature of the industry, Artistes opt to bet on themselves for a bigger pie of their musical revenue. 

Why Labels Are Important

Breaking an Artiste and shooting them into the limelight is one of the most arduous tasks that require a lot of strategizing, effort, and financial backing. Labels are often tasked with creating a relatable image, managing itineraries, securing features, building relationships with gatekeepers and tastemakers, as well as pumping as many financial resources into the projects of their Artistes for airplay and distribution. The first reality Artistes face when they leave these labels is that they lack the financial resources and the organizational force “the machine” a record label affords them and subsequently their musical fortunes begin to nosedive while these Artistes fail to return to the level of dominance and relevancy they maintained while under a label. 

Veteran DJ and music Legend, DJ Jimmy Jatt was quoted saying “The journey to the top is not an easy one and to get back to the top, many of these artistes have to put in much work in terms of rebranding, promoting and marketing of their brands and they also have to put in extra work in creating quality sounds that would draw the attention of fans and music lovers who once considered them as A-list hitmakers”

Reekado Don Jazzy Mavin Records
Reekado Banks and Don Jazzy. Photo from Daily Post

It is no wonder that a sizeable number of Artistes who left their labels hardly have the same level of success. Musical acts like Brymo have not been able to replicate musical hits like ARA or his hook-assisted OLEKU, same could be said for Iyanya who has not been able to dole out musical hits characteristic of his MMMG days. Artistes like Lil Kesh and Reekado Banks are just now starting to reenter mainstream music attention many years after leaving their label situations. 

Most often than not, Musical acts leave a record label for another label with more favorable terms to maintain a structure behind them to maintain their relevancy. 

Way Forward

Wizkid left EME record labels
Wizkid in Joro Video. Photo from Giphy

The rise of social media and streaming platforms has done a great deal to make music more accessible to the general public bypassing traditional gatekeepers, however, the downside of this development is the over-saturation of music to the consumer, leaving Artistes with more competition for the short attention span of the listening audience. This is evidenced by the lightning pace at which viral songs or moments are forgotten and moved on from for the next viral song. Labels initially took advantage of this phenomenon by spotting viral songs, signing the artistes, and pouring out large promotional budgets to influencers and tastemakers to elongate the virality of the Artiste’s project. These days, the labels have taken a step further by creating these viral moments from their artistes, through initiating and circulating challenges and dance moves for their artistes. Slowly and surely Labels are evolving to be social media gatekeepers. 

Concerning streaming platforms and Labels, it is an open secret that these two institutions are more intertwined than it seems. As of Q2, 2021 it was reported that Record labels own 31% of the shares in Spotify; currently the head of Youtube music, Lyor Cohen was the past head of three record labels namely; Def Jam, Warner Music Group, and 300 Entertainment, while a sizeable number of playlist curators on DSPs are past ANRs at record labels. 

Considering the hold Record Labels have on existing and dynamic music structures, disagreements between Artistes and executives will continue to be a staple in the music industry for the foreseeable future, with the labels having the last laugh. 


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