Last week, several prominent rap producers gathered on Twitter to discuss a reality they’ve faced within the music industry — inadequate compensation. They were responding to a DJ Booth article that addressed the claims of Pittsburgh producer E. Dan, who said that Atlantic Records had called the Wiz Khalifa project he worked on a “mixtape” to justify paying him less for his work. Several producers responded to that claim on Twitter — one of whom was Atlanta’s Sonny Digital.
Digital has long been vocal about what it's like navigating the music industry as a producer. This summer, he took that conversation a step further by specifically discussing the importance of recognizing and protecting producers, most notably through a series of tweets that suggested the idea of a producers union. For him, thinking critically about the treatment of producers stemmed from an initial feeling of unfairness. “I felt like I should have just as much respect as the artist was getting, or even more because we were creating things first and giving them to the artist to ride off of,” he shared over the phone.
“For instance, ‘Birthday Song’ with 2 Chainz and Kanye West — that song had my tag in it at the beginning, and they ended up taking it out because of how the song started,” Digital said of a specific instance from early-on in his career. “I felt like, Man, that's the only thing I had that was identifying me on there, and y'all trying to take it away from me. I felt like that shouldn't even have been a conversation if it was the same mutual respect between the artist and the producer. Fast forward to now — people are dying for the tags to be on their shit. That's kind of what got me to the point I'm at today.”
On a call last Wednesday, the star producer walked us through some of the real-life experiences that have informed his own approach to navigating the music industry. He also delves a bit deeper into his idea for a producer union, and shares some advice for rising producers who are just getting in the game.
Last week people were on Twitter talking about how producers are getting paid less for mixtapes versus albums. What are your thoughts on that situation?
I think everything got misconstrued a bit. People are complaining now. One thing people don't know — I'm on my artist stuff, I'm rapping on my own beats. Another thing, I did my deal with Atlantic, but I haven't told people that [yet]. I'd seen people attacking Atlantic on numerous occasions. I understand, but it's about how you handle your business. These companies have been here and they're not going anywhere based on what you say — this is what they do.
What I saw [online that day was], "Atlantic call albums mixtapes to lower the fees to pay producers." I'm like OK, cool. I don't know why y'all are talking about Atlantic for, because every label does this shit? Every label puts out a mixtape that ends up on Apple Music or Spotify, everywhere except Live Mixtapes or DatPiff or Soundcloud. Everybody that just came out with a "mixtape," it coincidentally always ends up on iTunes. Anything on iTunes is basically an album because you have to pay for it.
I remember when Live Mixtapes was poppin' and people were actually coming out with mixtapes that were legitimately free that no one was getting paid off of. Let's take it back to the Juicy J days when me and Lex [Luger] were doing the whole Rubba Band Business series — we were not getting paid for none of that stuff. We weren't getting paid for anything that was building things up to where it's at today, we were just building the shit up.
Even to get to a point where producers are at [today], where they are getting compensated a little bit for a "mixtape" that's on iTunes — they should be happy. We weren't getting paid when we were doing full-on mixtapes.
Right now, you've got the opportunity to get paid. People have got to humble themselves. A lot of these producers, they're not at the level to get paid "X" amount that they think they're supposed to be getting paid. If you're getting paid $1,000, that's probably what you're supposed to be getting paid. You’ve got to work your way up, build up. If someone will want to pay you $12,000 for a beat, you gotta make them feel like they’ll get something out of it, too. If it takes you having to give away 100 beats, then so be it! If you're gonna make 100 beats, you're gonna make 200 beats. You've gotta take a hit. I feel like we were taking a harder hit than the people are taking now.
“Right now, you’ve got the opportunity to get paid. People have got to humble themselves.” —Sonny Digital
Have you ever worked on a project that you thought was a mixtape but it ended up on iTunes?
The same situation happened to me before with Atlantic, with Lil Uzi Vert, when he did the Luv Is Rage mixtape early on in his career. When that project came out, it was all love, I wasn't looking to make no money, I was just here to support. When it went up on iTunes though, I was like, Ok, someone's getting paid now. That's when we had to reach out to Atlantic about it. That's what comes with what kind of person you are, and what kind of relationship you're going to build. With me, I knew Uzi was an up-and-coming artist. Usually, this situation happens to artists in the grey area, where they don't know if they're going to pop or go. [The situation becomes:] We got a budget for him, but not no crazy budget, either you're going to support it and be with this shit in the future, or you're gonna try to tax us and miss out. When I went into the situation, I wasn't planning on making money because, remember, that project came out as a free mixtape. I fucked with him too so that would defeat the purpose of being involved in the first place. When Atlantic hit me back, they said we only have $1000, $1500 to give you, so I was like Fuck it. After they paid me that, they recouped that money back [on sales]. If your producer advance is low, it will be easier for them to recoup that money and you'll start making royalties quicker.
I feel like the hip-hop community has a personal vendetta with Atlantic, and the reason why I feel like that is because Atlantic is a lot more hands-on with their artists. They be with their people, they're more friendly. Artists get attached to the people who work there — it's easier for you to get mad at somebody you know, versus someone you don't know.
For a label, too, if I had an artist and he's putting out all this free music but they can tour and do shows, I'm going to have to turn one of these mixtapes into an album so I can make some money. I see where everyone is coming from and why everybody feels how they feel, and I see where they can clash. Everybody wants to make their money.
Because you are both a producer and an artist in your own right, you’re able to see both sides of the situation. How has that viewpoint impacted how you navigate this industry?
If I use a producer, I try to always make sure they get compensated. I try to do everything the right way. But, I'm not going to lie, being an artist and dealing with producers is hard. Some producers can be dickheads. Sometimes they don't want to sign papers, or they want their numbers to be crazy. They make the business more difficult than it should be. It might not always be them, it might be people that collaborated on the beat with them. Everyone's perception of everything is not right. [Some producers] think [artists are] making more than [they] are, so they think they need to charge "X" amount [for their work]. When that happens it slows down the whole process. The only leverage that I have in the situation is that I am [a producer too]. I don't want to sound cocky, but I can produce the same shit that these guys are producing. That's why I'm not focusing on producing too heavy. I try to keep it cool with everybody and live by my producer morals while doing the artist thing. It's a real big disconnect between the artist and producer, shit different. I'm catching the best of both worlds, and I've been at the bottom of both.
How do you think that disconnect can be mended?
Right now, if producers got paid just as quick as the artists did, that gap would probably close, and there would be a lot better relationship. Right now, [payments] are so backed up. By the time the producers get paid, that money is going back to catching up to where they’re supposed to be at, while the artist is getting his money up front, living his life. For real, in this industry that shit be like a money-respect type thing.
I'll tell the producers to start rapping, and the rappers to start producing — y'all just switch roles and you'll start appreciating each other a bit more. That's what I've been preaching, and everybody thinks I be trying to make everybody overworked, but it just makes the process easier and makes you less dependent on people. I don't have to wait on nobody to come in and record me, or edit my vocals. I can do everything myself. And if I want people to come in, it becomes a luxury. Everybody that comes around me — you grab your stuff and wanna record? I teach them how to do that stuff and send them on their way. I give everybody a preset to work with, and they can build their own shit from there. And it helps me, too. All the artists I usually work with I teach them all that shit and pass that to them, I know it helps them and it's a good investment. If they ever get in the studio and the engineer is fucking up, they can just get behind [the boards], and it adds value to their name, too.
“It’s a real big disconnect between the artist and producer, shit different. Right now, if producers got paid just as quick as the artists did, that gap would probably close, and there would be a lot better relationship.” —Sonny Digital
Why do you feel like producers need a union today? Who or what are they protecting themselves from?
When I talked about the union, it was a very, very, loose idea. People gravitated towards it. It is a good idea, I just brought the conversation up. I can be the leader of that, but I don't know if it's really gonna happen in my lifetime. I know a lot of my peers have seen everything, but I feel like when you're trying to create a union, it's risky. A lot of people aren't gonna like it. It's a power thing. Somebody's gonna have to carry this. If we're talking about a union, that's millions of people. The word union means "one," [but] it's hard to get everyone on [the same page], especially in an industry where people feel like they're getting gipped. I think when we talk about this union, it would have to be a select group of people who are really moving the culture who are going to be in it.
I know you said it's just an idea, but what would it ideally entail for you?
It would be protection. Staff lawyers that will cover basic stuff for these people. Logistical things. What the union would be doing would be giving people who are part of the union the same access [to studios, sessions, and artists that] I have. That's why we'd have to be selective.
Another thing I was thinking about was possibly doing awards shows that really targeted in on people behind the scenes: engineers, producers, songwriters. The Grammys and all that stuff, they're just accolades and trophies. There's still a lot of people that don't get acknowledged that do deserve certain accolades. It doesn't have to be a Grammy, they just want to be recognized. I figured since these awards would be based around people making hits for others, that the people they're making hits for would want to come, and be more than 100 percent down to perform. Like I said, these are all loose ideas. It would be cool, but it would have to be someone that was into it. I'm into it, but it's a lot of responsibility, and I need a lot of people on board.
Right now, what can someone who's coming up as a producer do to make sure they're compensated adequately?
To be honest, I've read so many contracts and stuff, that I'm starting to understand the lingo by reading it a little bit. I read some stuff with my lawyer and ask, "Is this saying this?" Usually, whatever that first line is saying, whatever you think it's saying, it's gonna keep circling around that shit. All you've gotta do is read. I'm not saying be instinctive all the time, but usually you're not wrong. This is if you can't afford a lawyer. Even if you can afford one, it's good for you to read your own shit.
Real shit, a lot of times it's not always about the money. Most stuff I've done is about the relationships, because that shit will go a lot further than the money. When you go to handle business with anybody, try to handle business clean, even if you don't agree with what's going on. Be respectful, be good, and can't nobody say you do bad business.