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>Before the 90s happened artists got a pretty decent deal
We really didn't. They looked like OK deals because records sold in fantastic quantity, but the absolute percentages were horrible.
If you were a big artist and had a really good agent, you might have got 18% net. Out of that share, you paid for promotion, pressing and distribution. That tour bus? It's coming out of your royalties. The fancy sleeve with the holographic artwork? It's coming out of your royalties. The label takes the majority of the royalties, but then dumps all of their costs onto the artist. That 18% net deal gets whittled down to about 2% gross. Major artists might have been millionaires, but that's only because their labels were earning hundreds of millions. It was daylight robbery, but they got away with it because there was so much money sloshing around.
Deals started to look worse in the 90s, but that's mainly because CD sales started to collapse after the launch of Napster. The cost of recording and promotion were relatively fixed, so an increasing proportion of artists found themselves failing to recoup. Things only started getting objectively worse in the late 00s, when labels started offering 360 deals that covered record sales, live revenues and merch.
A notorious example of dirty record label accounting is something called breakage. Back in the days of vinyl, record labels would deduct about 20% of the artist's royalties for breakage, ostensibly because vinyl records were fragile and a lot of them got broken before reaching the retailers. The idea that one in five records were broken in transit somewhat stretches the limits of plausibility, but ho hum. When CDs arrived, the record labels were advertising them to the public as unbreakable, but they still charged 20% breakage. Ostensibly this was because the smaller CDs were easier to shoplift. When iTunes came along, the labels still charged 20% breakage for something that's literally impossible to break. It's 2018, most recording revenues are from streaming and the labels are still charging 20% breakage.