Amid the beat market exchange, a growing number of talented beatmakers, and desperation beat prices, a beatmakers union holds the answer to a more powerful beatmaking community
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
In the preface of The BeatTips Manual, I point out that the fundamental purpose of the book (as well the BeatTips network of sites) is to preserve the beatmaking tradition. Moreover, I want to draw more attention to the fact that beatmaking, as a music compositional method, has increasingly become significant around the globe. Thus, in every way possible, I want
In addition to this fundamental purpose, one of my main auxiliary goals for BeatTips is to have it serve as the catalyst for a beatmakers union. For more than twelve years, I’ve worked to help unify and expand the community of beatmakers. And while most beatmakers are steadfastly committed to their art and craft, many do not recognize that beatmaking (hip hop production) is also a powerful trade. Hence, I’ve been committed to raising attention to the artisanship of beatmaking, and I believe the advent of a beatmakers union is not only helpful in this regard, it’s necessary as the craft moves forward.
The Advent of a Beatmakers Union: The BeatTips UBG Proposal
In order to ensure the rights for a rapidly growing number of professional beatmakers, I strongly believe that beatmakers must unionize. The BeatTips proposal for a beatmakers union includes four main points or recommendations:
• I recommend that the name of the union be United Beatmakers Guild (UBG). In my view, beatmaker has always carried a much more significant tone. Beatmakers are the artisans of one of the world’s newest and fastest growing music traditions. As such, beatmaker is a term that’s distinguished from “producer,” which can and often does signifies something altogether different. Further, beatmaker represents a specific form and category of music producer; thus, I find it more befitting (and powerful) that a union bear the name beatmaker. Still, I recognize the ubiquitous nature of the term "producer," therefore, United Producers Guild (UPG) works as well.
• I recommend that UBG focus on three fundamental areas: (1) guaranteed labor contracts with the RIAA, comparable to those held with the American Federation of Musicians (incidentally, beatmakers should also be members of the AFM — beatmakers are indeed musicians, and the AFM should recognize this fact and expand their membership to include beatmakers); (2) a fair compensation system, which includes prompt delivery of payment, fair minimum beat prices, a tiered pricing scheme, and a formal system for assigning proper credits; and (3) standards and best practices — upholding beatmaking/production standards, quality control, and preserving the integrity of the beatmaking craft.
• I recommend that UBG be modeled, in as many ways as possible, on the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
• I recommend that the majority — if not all — UBG executive leadership posts be held by actual beatmakers (producers). I further recommend that UBG not be lead by beat brokers or owners of similar cottage industry outlets. It is crucial that any beatmakers union not be co-opted by beat placement organizations, beat-broker types or outer-fringe producer managers. This group's argument will be that they have the connections and infrastructure already in place. But if their connections where so strong and infrastructure so undeniably solid, they'd have far more beatmakers (producers) using their services now; they'd also have a lot more influence in the music industry. In truth, they're middle men with minimal power in a world where essentially anyone can contact anyone. Also, this group has been vocal about encouraging non-sample-based beats over sample-based beats. Union leadership should represent beatmakers of both major production styles — sample-based and non-sample-based — and they should not favor one beatmaking style and sound over another regardless of the complexities that may arise from one production style.
• I recommend that membership be restricted to beatmakers/music producers of both major production styles — sample-based and non-sample based. Under no circumstances can anyone who is not, nor has never made beats (produced) be a member of UBG. Persons who are not beatmakers (producers) or have never made beats, for example so-called producer managers, beat brokers, etc. should only be affiliated as independent contractors (if need be), or they could perhaps serve as advisors for limited times (if need be). In some rare cases, proven producer managers could hold pivotal staff administration positions or executive positions if need be.
Understanding What UBG Would Look Like
To have a better understanding of what I envision for UBG, I thought that it would be helpful to share Uh-Oh Beats’ question to me on this matter, along with my detailed response. Here is Uh-Oh’s comments and questions to me in full:
I agree with the union idea. How does one go about entering the union though? Like when I think of a "union," I think of all them old white dudes my dad knows who get together and throw parties and do city work and etc., etc. And to get in the union you have to know someone in the union. Would it be similar to that? And what would be the driving points to get beatmakers to want to join? Because honestly, I would want to join if I was guaranteed $3000 a beat. But honestly, how many beats would I be selling? I’d be happy to get $1000 for a beat, hell to be honest, if someone gave me $500 I’d be amazed and jump all over it. So what’s to say struggling beatmakers with no connections other then the internet, what would be stopping them from going around the union? I think that's the main point of interest we have to look at and address to really make this happen. Because just the other day I sold five beats for $1000, which is the most money I've ever made off my music at one time. (The previous was five beats for $250.
I just find it so hard to sell beats as is, when I'm letting them go for $150 for exclusive and $50 to lease. (Frown upon me all you want lol. I love making beats and it’s that much better getting paid to do something I love. Gotta go cheap if you want to sell ANYTHING with the market so flooded). I can’t imagine honestly asking someone to pay $3000 for one unless their seriously established and working on a serious project.
But the union would also have to have a cap for the amount of members wouldn't it? and serious artists would go to the union for beats. but if there's so many members how would one go about even looking for beats within it?
Before getting into my full response to the concerns and questions raised by Uh-Oh, I have to provide some important context about beat prices themselves. First, the $3,000 price point that Uh-Oh kept referring to in his question comes from an earlier discussion on TBC where I discussed the reality and evolution of beat prices. For years, the legend has been that beatmakers in the 1990s were getting extremely high prices for beats; rumors of $25,000, $50,000, and even $100,000 beat prices were the norm and the sort of thing many budding beatmakers dreamed of obtaining one day. Legend aside, you can be sure that $100,000 for beats weren’t the norm for most beatmakers (producers) in the ‘90s or the early 2000s. As I discuss in more detail in The BeatTips Manual, some undoubtedly did receive upwards of $25,000 — but that was typically for multiple beats.
But the fact is — which labels and recording artists eventually came to realize — $25,000 has always been too much to pay for a beat in the first place. As I write in The BeatTips Manual, “Beatmaking is a new musical phenomenon, as such, the price parameters and ceiling was being set — in real time — in the 1990s. And what was the price parameters and ceiling for beats based on? Well, in many ways, the model for previous music producers. But after while, it became clear that not all beatmakers were actually in the studio with rappers "producing," helping out song ideas, vocal coaching, mixing, etc. As such, beat prices necessarily had to go down. Think about it: If a beat goes to a rapper, without the beatmaker's presence, well, then what you have is a situation were the "building materials" (the beat) are being bought wholesale. That is to say, the beat, without the beatmaker's input, should be less expensive. Add to that mix the fact that the number of able beatmakers grew exponentially over the pass 10 years, and what you get is a dramatic drop in beat prices. In other words, the beat market prices corrected themselves; it was inevitable.”
Second, some have blamed lower beat prices on poor record sales and illegal downloads, but poor music sales and illegal downloads are NOT the major culprit here; they’re not the reason that beat prices have gone down. Poor record sales and illegal downloads merely helped people to see the obvious: beats (not production services) were long overpriced and automatically presumed to be production services in a more traditional sense. Beat prices of $25,000 and above were unreasonable in the first place; it just took a little time for the market to correct itself.
Beat prices actually began to go down more quickly than people realize. By 1994, prices were steadily going down for most acclaimed beatmakers; only a specific few were able to command exorbitant beat prices and fees. Sure, the likes of Dr. Dre, Darkchild, Timbaland, and The Neptunes saw their prices go up; but they didn’t just supply beats, they supplied production services and a highly marketable brand name. But I’m sure they came down off of their prices as they saw their workloads being decreased. Why? It's simple: price point too high, and with no guaranteed hit, there were very few takers willing to absorb the risk or blow to their decreased recording budgets. Many recording artists wised up and started looking elsewhere for new talent, quality production (sometimes even knock-off sounds), and lower prices.
Thus, the true market price range for quality beats has, in reality, always been roughly $3,000-$7,000 per beat (lower obviously for less established names). A product always goes for what the market is willing to bear. While the market was unsure, beat prices were high; once there was more clarity in the market — about the product, about what one was actually getting for their money, about the growing number of qualified beatmakers — the market corrected itself. And consider this fact: In most cases, between 1989-1999, the bigger beat price tags for most acclaimed beatmakers typically covered multiple flat-rate beat deals, usually 3-8 beats (plus in-studio work) or the entire album depending on the beatmaker and the specific rapper or other artist involved. (In my interviews with Marley Marl, DJ Premier, and DJ Toomp, each made this clear about the nature and negotiations of beat prices.)
Here, I’ll provide my full response to the concerns and questions raised by Uh-Oh:
(1) “When I think of a 'union,' I think of all them old white dudes my dad knows who get together and throw parties and do city work and etc.”
There are a number of different unions, but essentially all "worker unions" share two primary goals for its members: fair wages and better labor conditions. The labor union that you're probably most familiar with is in the vein of an auto/trucking union, or city workers union, something along those lines. A musicians union — which is what a beatmakers union would be — is a creative arts-based union. Just like any other union, there are rotating wage concerns and labor situations. A beatmakers union would seek to secure better wages for ALL members as well as better labor conditions. A beatmakers union would guarantee a minimum sell price, the selling floor.
Also, a union would guarantee a top tier payment scale, both based on beatmaker status (name recognition and number of commercial releases) and the magnitude of the project; for instance, big-time major or indie commercial releases, free mixtapes, etc. In terms of UBG, there would be a standard fee, which is union scale. Then there would be a graduated scale fee, or better said, a “veteran's minimum.” The veteran's minimum would be calculated on a beatmakers overall presence/time/significance in the field. Point is, it wouldn't matter simply “how long” some one’s been around. There are many beatmakers who have been around for 15 years, that doesn’t mean that they've had much of an impact on the hip hop/rap and/or beatmaking traditions.
Membership in a creative arts-based union is different than, let's say, the UAW (United Auto Workers). Union membership is NOT fundamentally based on "who you know." Instead, membership is based on your actual professional work. For instance, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is a union for professional actors. SAG has feature film, indie film, television commercial contracts, etc. What gets you into SAG is your first SAG sanctioned gig. So let’s say you go to an open audition for an upcoming feature film. Whether you’ve acted before or not, if you get the role, you automatically have to becaome a member of SAG; if you do not join SAG before principle shooting begins, then the producers (the studio) are restricted from using you in the role if it’s a SAG sanctioned feature. Once you’re a member of SAG, you get a notice about the initial SAG entry fee and subsequent dues, which is based on a small percentage of your annual earnings.
Now, the very important thing to understand here about SAG is that they’ve already worked out the “starting point” for all of its members. That is to say, because of SAG, there is a minimum day rate (paid rate per each day) that ALL actors must get, based on the type and size — big budget feature, small budget feature, indie, etc. — of the film. This also includes labor conditions that must be met, for example: personal trailers for principle actors, guaranteed work breaks, guaranteed overtime pay, guaranteed lunch breaks and food, transportation, etc. Before there was an actors union, NONE OF THIS was guaranteed! Movie studios could, and routinely did, pay an actor whatever they wanted. In fact, before SAG, motion picture studios would sign actors to long-term, draconian contracts, loaning the actors out to other studios as they chose.
Further, because SAG has jurisdiction over so many areas, film/television production companies face hefty fines when they use a non-union member for a SAG-sanctioned project. Thus, film/television companies do not mess around with this, they ONLY use SAG members for SAG-sanctioned projects.
(2) “What would be the driving points to get beatmakers to join?”
That's easy: better wages, appropriate labor conditions, and the promise of more work.
(3) As for “getting around the union?”
As with SAG, if a beatmakers union secured the right agreements with major labels (RIAA) and indie labels, jurisdiction would make it impossible for non-union members to get work on those projects sanctioned by the union. Point is: there's a bigger picture here. Of course, there will be selfish people who think that they can (and will) go it alone. But the reality is this: the number of professionally qualified new beatmakers is steadily growing. A beatmakers union is the best way to harness that power and create an environment for more beatmakers to consistently get paid for their work. If done right, every talented beatmaker would join the union, as opportunities outside of UBG would be minimal.
Incidentally, I believe now is the right time to move forward with a beatmakers union, because ALL labels are weakened, particularly in terms of leverage; they know anyone can make and distribute their own music. If a beatmakers union can demonstrate how it can help turn around the larger sales picture, labels will likely make a number of important concessions to a beatmakers union. Bottom line: The labels want (need) to make money. If an exclusive deal with a powerful beatmakers union helps them achieve that goal, they’ll be more than willing to work with UBG.
Keep in mind, in recent years, one of the major problems in hip hop/rap music has been quality control particularly in the area of beats. If a beatmakers union was powerful enough to show labels (big and small) that it was in their strategic advantage to do a deal with UBG, they would. Should the labels ignore such a powerful union, the alternative would mean that they’d have to compete with a united force of individuals who have much more influence over the internet and the streets than they do.
(4) “But the union would also have to have a cap for the amount of members wouldn't it?”
No! There’s no cap on the amount of new projects someone can think of, create, and distribute for commercial purposes. So why would there be a cap on the number of members in a beatmakers union? Again, entry into UBG would be based on a beatmakers contribution to a commercially released project or professional mixtape. This project could be a beatmaker's own commercially released project, even a free mixtape if was distributed to a large enough audience (not a mixtape that was just handed to a handful of friends); such a mixtape would have to have had garnered some widespread level of critical acclaim. But in the union I envision, all of the parameters of entry could not be determined by just one person. The metrics would be simple and automatic, with a streamlined process for registering with UBG.
(5) “If there’s so many members how would one go about even looking for beats within it?”
Each member would be registered with UBG, and labels and individuals could submit beat requests to what I would call the UBG’s “Beat Request Registry.” Each "BR" request would have a number and link to the actual request. ONLY members in good standing (meaning dues paid, no worker complaints, etc.) would have access to the BR filings.
It is my firm belief that a strong and united beatmakers union is the only way to assure decent beat prices and pay parity in the new beat market exchange, a phenomenon I detail in The BeatTips Manual. I’ve been calling for the creation of a union for beatmakers for over ten years now. In that time, the bottom-lines of some of the most well-known beatmakers (producers) have been pinched, and there’s been a tremendous rise in the number of talented beatmakers turning pro with different levels of production placements. Thus, right now is the time for serious strides towards a beatmakers union to be made. UBG can become a reality.