Sally Yoon is an IPilogue Writer, IP Innovation Clinic Fellow, and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Beyoncé’s new album released on July 29, 2022, Renaissance, was the subject of a lot of backlash this month. Her song “Heated” was labeled “ableist” and “offensive” from listeners for using the word “spazz,” and many more were heated about “Energy,” interpolated Kelis’ 2003 R&B favourite, “Milkshake.”
On August 8, 2022, Kelis was quick to vocalize how she felt about Beyoncé’s use of her song, stating that she was neither notified nor asked for permission before the sample was used in “Energy.” Beyoncé fans taunted Kelis for vocalizing this issue, saying that the singer should have just “been happy to be on the album,” but Kelis continued to voice the disrespect she felt by this act. In a viral Instagram story, she exclaimed, “from one artist to another, you should have the decency … to call reach out … a manager, an agent, anybody … even if you’re going to do it anyway.”
From a legal standpoint, lawyers have been clear that Beyoncé’s team fulfilled their legal obligations. Artists only require permission from original composers and the record labels if they wish to borrow work, and unfortunately for Kelis, she didn’t fall within this category due to a contract she signed when she was nearly 20 years younger and did not fully understand. Kelis also claimed in a previous interview that, back then, she was falsely promised that she would receive an equal split for the song.
Shortly after being publicly called out, Beyoncé removed the problematic sample from the song on versions available on several streaming platforms. She also removed the credits for Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, the creator and producer of “Milkshake” – a move to “manage ‘potential fallout’ from the public.” Kelis has no legal ground to stand on but her quarrel with Beyoncé illuminates a prominent and recurring issue in the music industry. Young artists continue to be pressured into signing contracts that they don’t fully understand, signing off rights that lead to catastrophic results later in their careers. We saw this with Taylor Swift when she re-recorded some of her most famous albums in an attempt to own her own work. She stated, “This is what happens when you sign a deal at 15 to someone for whom the term ‘loyalty’ is clearly just a contractual concept. And when that man says, ‘Music has value,’ he means its value is beholden to men who had no part in creating it.”
Moreover, Summer Walker’s contract with label and management company Love Renaissance was in the limelight late last year for its debilitating demands. The draft document harshly demanded that the singer “give up a chunk of all her non-musical earnings, even in areas like acting” and offered low advance payment and royalty rates in comparison to the standards then.
Often blinded by their ambition and pressured by the power imbalances with their labels, younger musicians need to ensure that they are securing their full rights at the time of music creation. This would require the artists to understand the individual actors that the musical composition would be split amongst, preferably utilizing a “split sheet,” where everybody’s contributions would be documented to avoid any confusion later down the road. Just a few minutes of extra due diligence in the recording room can spare an artist from losses decades into their career.