Last December, NLE Choppa took to Twitter because he was concerned about Famous Dex. The Chicago rapper had alarmed fans after he appeared disoriented and intoxicated on a livestream. Choppa called out Dex’s label 300 Entertainment, noting, “I’ve never been the type to be in folks business but @300 y’all see Famous Dex obviously on drugs too heavy can y’all at least try surrounding that man around somebody with his best interest.”
People replying to his tweet echoed his call, including an account that voiced a popular sentiment: “It’s all about money. Labels don’t care about artists & never have.” That perception is based on countless stories of artists making millions for their labels but not receiving health care or legal assistance. But they probably don’t realize that 300 is one of the labels that step beyond contractual obligations to look out for artists.
Last year, 300 Entertainment CEO Kevin Liles created a range of initiatives for both 300 artists and employees, including financial assistance and access to therapy. Liles said that “at least 50 percent” of 300 artists took up the label on its offer to “pursue therapy or to listen to some form of holistic health and wellness.” It seems like Dex, and other 300 acts, do have the option to get help directly from the label.
“Sometimes you can throw a stone at a glass house, but the glass house is already looking at things and taking into consideration,” Liles tells Complex. “We don’t sit on our hands at 300.” But Liles and 300’s altruism isn’t the norm. There are many stories of artists feeling alone with addiction and mental health struggles, even as labels make millions off of their traumatic narratives.
Major labels reportedly make $1 million an hour from artists being streamed on DSPs, but some don’t offer them direct access to health care. Artist unions like SAG-AFTRA exist, but many artists aren’t aware of their existence, even though they send pamphlets to new signees’ listed addresses. Organizations like MusiCares, a leading music charity and partner of the Recording Academy, and others also offer mental health care and resources to musicians. Recording artists don’t have to feel alone in the industry, but many believe labels should play a prominent part in making health care (and the subsequent access to therapy and rehab) more accessible.
“What other situation does somebody own almost the entire stream of money, the entire income stream, but then they get to say, ‘Well, this is an independent contractor [kind of relationship]’?” – Nobigdyl
Tennessee-based artist Nobigdyl tells Complex that he began dealing with “circumstantial anxiety and pressure” after signing to Capitol Christian Music Group (a subsidiary of Capitol Records) in 2018, but he felt he had no one at the label to talk to about it—and he says they didn’t offer him any access to therapy.
“The pressure that comes with being on a label is very hard to explain if you’ve never been in that situation,” he says. “It feels like you’re trusting somebody with your most valuable ideas and, in some way, your identity if you’re an artist who puts your soul into your music.” He adds, “When it starts to feel like those people don’t make good on those promises, it’s more than, ‘I’m not making money right now.’ It’s like, ‘I gave ownership of my ideas to these people and they’re just sitting on them, or they’re clipping your wings. I think the mental health aspect of it is way bigger than people think. It’s a very mentally taxing job to be a creative, anyway, so in that situation, I feel the artist needs all the help that he can get.”
Dyl says that outside of an A&R (who later left the label) and an artist liaison who primarily dealt with new artists, he felt he had no one to speak to about the pressure. When reached for comment, a Capitol representative informed Complex that “CCMG has been supporting mental health resources provider Porter’s Call, for more than 15 years, and has encouraged its artists to make use of that organization’s free resources whenever needed.”
Porter’s Call’s website says it is a “safe and confidential refuge where [artists] can deal with the issues and stresses they face in their careers and personal lives.” The nonprofit is comprised of five counselors, and over 3,000 artists have reportedly used its services since it was founded in 2001. Dyl says he was never informed about Porter’s Call, and he primarily found solace in “faith and community,” but feels like there’s a place for major labels to offer direct artist resources in light of what they ask from artists—especially considering that artists are signed to labels essentially as independent contractors, blocked off from the benefits other label employees receive.
“What other situation does somebody own almost the entire stream of money, the entire income stream, but then they get to say, ‘Well, this is an independent contractor [kind of relationship]’?” he asks. “It just doesn’t make sense if they own all the music and the control and the artist is an independent contractor that doesn’t get benefits and all that.”
“Sometimes you can throw a stone at a glass house, but the glass house is already looking at things and taking into consideration. We don’t sit on our hands at 300.” – Kevin Liles
The major obstacle keeping artists from receiving access to the same benefits as label employees is the nature of the average artist contract.
“There’s an actual clause in their contracts that states that they are not an employee,” says Wendy Day, music industry veteran and founder of the pro-artist Rap Coalition. “The contract stipulates that they will be treated differently. It actually says you’re in no way an employee, because the labels don’t want to have to meet minimum standards or pay any extras like health care or social security or workman’s compensation or all the stuff that you have to do when you’re an employer.”
Day founded the Rap Coalition in 1992 after selling her condo and BMW, as well as putting her life savings into the “not-for-profit artists’ advocacy organization to educate, inform, and unify rap artists, producers, and DJs,” as the official Facebook page states. There were even efforts to make the Coalition a union, but she ran into legal red tape. Day has said that the need for the Coalition came “out of disgust for the way urban artists are unfairly exploited in the music industry,” including the lack of health care coverage. Unfortunately, that inequity is still present at a time when artists are suffering from America’s opioid epidemic.
“In our industry, just looking at the bare minimum, we’ve got such an opioid problem, between lean and Percocet and pill popping,” she says. ”And I just don’t see any of the labels or management companies offering help to their artists. I feel like they’re almost turning a blind eye to it, which is just as bad as fueling it.”
Liles says he and 300 Entertainment acknowledge the problem. “You can read the blogs or Instagram and you see artists going through different things. It’s not a new thing, but the amount of artists is new,” he says, noting the quantity of artists dealing with the effects of the pandemic and the heightened awareness of police brutality.
He says that he’s been focused on the well-being of 300 executives as well as “our culture,” encouraging his employees to lend a helping hand, not just in their official capacity but as would-be “therapists” and “counselors” to artists.
“Really know your artists, know your team, and really be there for them,” he implores.
The label’s COVID response initiatives included financial assistance and access to mental health care for signees like 20-year-old Noah Cunane, who tells Complex that “300 has really been there to support me through all that I’ve gone through in the past two years. They encouraged me to take time for myself and focus on myself. They helped me find my psychiatrist which really changed my whole life.”
“The labels don’t want to have to meet minimum standards or pay any extras like health care or social security or workman’s compensation or all the stuff that you have to do when you’re an employer.” – Wendy Day
Day thinks that actions such as Liles’ are a result of industry leaders who are of the culture as opposed to those seeking to merely make a dollar from artists.
“Back when I started in the music industry, a lot of the leaders at labels were on the creative side,” she says. “They came in as DJs or A&R guys that got promoted. And I feel like today, a lot of the leadership are lawyers and accountants. So it’s become more about the bottom line than it is about taking care of [artists].”
Indeed, Kevin Liles is a former member of Baltimore-based DJ Crew Numarx. He asserts, “I lived through all this so this is just a way of life for me and I don’t take it lightly.”
Unfortunately, his point of view feels rare among major label executives, and health care is often an afterthought. This is why artists like Joe Budden and Chance the Rapper have suggested putting together artist unions to demand more from the labels. But unbeknownst to many, there are two major unions that already work with artists: SAG-AFTRA and the Federation of American Musicians (AFM). Artists signed to royalty-based contracts at “Big 3” major labels are automatically eligible for coverage through SAG-AFTRA.
“SAG-AFTRA is a main source of health coverage for people who are working as singers, or as recording artists, for the major labels, and the indies that are signatory to SAG-AFTRA contracts,” says Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, COO and general counsel for the union. “Provided that the individual works enough to qualify for coverage, then they’re provided with a comprehensive package of health benefits that are provided through that health plan.” He says SAG-AFTRA offers affordable premiums, ranging from a quarterly $125 for those applying for individual coverage to $249 a month for a family of five.
Kristina Gorbacsov, director of the union’s music wing, says eligible labels notify them of new signees. “Our membership department will kick out a letter to them,” she says, but they don’t always get responses from artists. It’s possible that their letters were sent to old addresses or family members who didn’t inform the artists.
Dyl says he heard of SAG-AFTRA from his time studying for a music business degree from Middle Tennessee State University, but doesn’t recall receiving a letter from SAG-AFTRA or having anyone from Capitol inform him of his eligibility to apply: “It could have been in the paperwork or whatever, but just definitely was not a focus. I never heard anybody say that. Nobody showed me that.”
Crabtree-Ireland of SAG-AFTRA reflects, “I think the time when a new artist is being signed by a label is a very exciting and intense time for a lot of them. And sometimes, the sort of nuts-and-bolts business details of that are not the first priority for them.”
Both Gorbacsov and Crabtree-Ireland say that SAG-AFTRA prioritizes outreach to artists and wants eligible artists to email them to be “hand held” through the process.
SAG-AFTRA is a good source of assistance for major-label artists and certain indies, but not every label with proximity to a major is eligible. Payday Records, which couldn’t be reached for comment, had SAG-AFTRA coverage in their 1993-1999 heyday through their relationship with PolyGram Records, but their 2018 redux isn’t eligible, even though their music is reportedly distributed in association with Ultra Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment.
Brooklyn rapper Radamiz and Chicago MC BIGBABYGUCCI are two former Payday acts who feel like labels should be offering more access to health care.
Radamiz, who was signed to Payday from 2017 to 2020, says he feels labels should offer their artists access to health benefits, but also says that every artist’s situation is different, and some may not need benefits from a major label, depending on their success.
“I do believe an ideal future is, ‘I don’t need you to manage my money when I sign to you, I don’t need you to offer me health care, I don’t need you to provide me a therapist, and I don’t need you to care about my life or pretend to,’” he says. “But [labels should] at least have it in place, and then set it up where it’s something anonymous, to a certain extent. You don’t want it to be fucking Childish Gambino calling the label and he’s like, ‘Yo, I need a therapist.’ And now everybody knows that Childish Gambino wants a therapist.”
BIGBABYGUCCI signed to Payday in 2018, but has since gone independent with his own Better Temperatures venture. When asked about his thoughts on what majors are offering artists from a benefits perspective, he bluntly says, “Nobody in the music industry is offering therapy. That’s why all these artists is dying.” He adds, “It’s crazy how many rappers have died off just drug abuse. [Some] people use drugs for fun, but mostly it comes from a dark place. So if you really care about your artists, wouldn’t you want to make sure they’re in the right mental spot?”
The young rapper feels like some of that darkness is “egged on” by the labels, especially A&Rs who enable artists. “They’re always trying to be cool with the rappers and on a friendly level, giving them anything they want,” he says. “I’ve heard all types of shit, bro. I know A&Rs; that’s why I don’t like them.”
BIGBABYGUCCI says once his own label Better Temperatures reaches a certain point, he’ll be open to offering benefits. “These are my friends,” he says. “These people that I have around me, I care about them. I love them. So of course when I get to that point, I’m going to offer all types of coverage. Health coverage. Dental coverage. Fuck you need? We can get all that.”
“Music has a rampant problem with addiction, and it is easy for management teams and label support staff to become enablers, or even addicts themselves, if they aren’t properly trained or aware of their responsibility in keeping our industry healthy.” – Laura Segura
For now, artists on indies without access to SAG-AFTRA coverage are able to receive assistance through entities like the Grammy Foundation’s MusiCares, which helps artists with “a minimum of three years in the music industry or six commercially released recordings or videos,” as executive director Laura Segura tells Complex.
“MusiCares is here for all music people, no matter their genre, age, gender, or background,” she says. “Our organization provides support for a variety of needs including physical and mental health, addiction recovery, preventative clinics, unforeseen personal emergencies, and disaster relief.”
The organization started in 1989, and has helped over 200,000 music professionals, including a dispersal of $22 million to over 24,000 people in 2020 (a pandemic-influenced increase from the usual 4,000-7,000 annual cases). Segura notes that Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group were some of the biggest donors to their COVID relief fund.
The program has collaborated on providing financial relief, but Segura believes there’s more work to be done. She says she would like to work more with labels on ways to mitigate the drug problem in the industry: “Music has a rampant problem with addiction, and it is easy for management teams and label support staff to become enablers, or even addicts themselves, if they aren’t properly trained or aware of their responsibility in keeping our industry healthy.”
Segura applauded 300’s efforts, noting, “Major labels aren’t just places of business. They are communities of like-minded people who share a love of music.”
Liles expresses a similar outlook, explaining, “My goal is to humanize the industry and to say whatever way we can be of service and be helpful to holistic health and mental wellness, we’re going to do it. I pride myself and the company on the efforts we’ve made. And to everyone else that reads this article: Give yourself a real gut-check. Make sure the programs that you have in place are not just checking a box.”
Contrary to popular belief, there is assistance available for artists via industry vessels. But not enough artists, managers, and others in a position to help know about them. SAG-AFTRA and MusiCares are doing outreach, but there appears to be more work to be done for them to become more prominent resources for suffering artists.
Day applauds MusiCares’ efforts, but feels like the labels making the lion’s share of money from the average record deal should be taking the lion’s share of the role in helping artists, especially during the pandemic.
“My goal is to humanize the industry and to say whatever way we can be of service and be helpful to holistic health and mental wellness, we’re going to do it.” – Kevin Liles
“I don’t mean to belittle [MusiCares], because [a $1,000 grant] is a lot of money when you’re broke. But it’s not enough. The major labels really need to step in and help their artists. And if they are quietly, that’s wonderful. But also if they are quietly, I’m not seeing it. I’m not hearing anybody talk about how their label has helped them during the pandemic or given them tests for COVID or paid for medical expenses.”
Nobigdyl, who has been independent for several years, feels like leading industry artists could have a voice in pushing record labels to make artist health care a priority.
“I really think as artists have more ownership and more control then it will naturally become a part of the conversation,” he says. “Artists are already thinking about these things, whereas the corporate people are not. They’re never going to think about it by themselves.”
For now, ventures like 300’s are the exception that prove an unsettling rule. Artists are the life of the industry, but Nobigdyl doesn’t think artist’s actual lives are valued.
“Labels are literally profiting off of people’s lived pain,” he says. “They’re putting it into music and then they’re just ignoring it.”