Day 6

Rapper Cadence Weapon says under a 360 record deal, he was 'not personally making any money'

As a rising star on the hip hop scene, Rollie Pemberton, better known as rapper Cadence Weapon, was touring the world and playing international music festivals. But after signing a 360 deal with an independent record label, he says he made virtually no money.

'I don't want to ever hear about anyone having a bad deal like I had,' says the musician

Rollie Pemberton, better known as rapper Cadence Weapon, penned an essay about his negative experience signing a 360 deal with an independent record label. (Scott Pilgrim)

As a rising star on the hip hop scene, Rollie Pemberton, better known as rapper Cadence Weapon, was touring the world and playing international music festivals. 

But despite getting paid for his performances, he says he survived off the small per diems that venues would offer. Pemberton says it's the result of a 360 record deal he signed with a Canadian independent music label at 19. Such a deal gives a label profits from an artist's other revenue streams, like ticket sales and endorsements, in addition to the standard cut for record sales.

"I'd be getting all this money from shows and then I would be sending it to the label," Pemberton told Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho.

In an essay written by Pemberton and shared online, the artist says that during the first 10 years of his career, he "basically didn't make a dime."

The deal was looked at by lawyers, and despite concerns about its terms, he signed on. He expected that once the label recouped its expenses, he would begin to see some returns.

Under the 360 deal, he says much of his income — including an honorarium for being named Edmonton's poet laureate — went directly to the label.

Pemberton adds that the label provided no accounting for the money they were taking, which he says was required twice per year according to his contract. He says that the label did provide regular statements of what was owed to the company.

"I was not personally making any money," he told Day 6. "The only money I received would have been 50 per cent of my SOCAN publishing, which ... they got 50 per cent of and they still do, to this day for my first three albums."

"I had to have other jobs at the same time that I'm playing these huge international festivals."

In a statement provided to Day 6, Upper Class Management, the label behind the 360 deal, said their work with Pemberton was a "passion project" and that "Despite significant efforts and international interest, Upper Class Recordings never saw a profit from the work of Cadence Weapon."

The statement continues: "We believe in a culture of trust and transparency and this is what was provided to any of our artists who wanted to understand the business side of our label. The plain facts are that most musicians in our country sadly do not make money."

Black artists routinely underpaid, says researcher

The idea behind 360 deals dates back to the early 2000s, when record sales saw a steep decline with the rise of online file-sharing services like Napster.

In turn, labels sought to get more profit from their artists by tapping into new revenue streams including revenue from concerts, tours and merchandising deals — deals that were typically negotiated by artists rather than record companies.

"The metaphor is that the artist is standing within an enclosure ... so that any money-making interactions the artist has, the company has a piece of it, because that's sort of a 360-degree toll gate that the contract sets out," said Matt Stahl, an associate professor of media and information studies at Western University in London, Ont.

After a six-year hiatus from music, Pemberton released an album in 2018. In April this year, he released an album of new music. (Levi Manchak)

Stahl says that 360 deals aren't entirely to blame. For many big name artists, like Robbie Williams who signed a 360 deal in the early 2000s, they can be lucrative. But he argues that Pemberton's experience isn't unique. 

Since the 20th century, Black recording artists have been routinely underpaid by record companies, according to research undertaken by Stahl and Olufunmilayo Arewa, a professor of business and transactional law at Temple University.

While those artists made money through touring and other revenue streams, suspicious accounting practices by labels meant they didn't receive their fair share of record sales. And when some, like R&B artist Sam Moore, began looking toward retirement only then did they discover that despite a decades-long career, there was little money offered by the companies, Stahl writes.

Similarly, in December 2020, record company and publisher BMG announced that it found evidence at four of its labels that some Black artists were paid lower royalties than their white counterparts.

"What is so astounding to me about Cadence Weapon's story, the way he tells it, is that it's exactly the same as some of these stories," Stahl told Day 6.

'I want to be a cautionary tale'

By his own accounting, Pemberton believes that over the time he was signed to Upper Class Management, he sent them upward of $255,000.

When he began to push for more information from the label — particularly related to his work as poet laureate — he says that there was "radio silence."

"Frankly, I didn't know what to do," Pemberton said. "I didn't know what avenues were available to me to extricate myself from the situation."

Pemberton stepped away from his music career for six years as a result of his experience, working instead as a DJ. He released new music in 2018 under a new label, and his latest album was released in April 2021.

"I've never felt better in my career, really. Once I took more control over things, that's when my career totally turned around, you know?" he said.

Asked why he's speaking out now, years after leaving the label he says left him "penniless," Pemberton says he was partially inspired by the conversation around Britney Spears's ongoing conservatorship.

Fans have been calling for the pop star to be released from the years-long conservatorship. Spears testified in court last month that the agreement is "abusive," she has lost control of her finances, been forced to perform and is now asking a judge to end it.

"This is a situation that has happened to so many artists, so many musicians in history, especially Black musicians, and I feel like I want to be a cautionary tale," Pemberton said.

"I don't want to ever hear about anyone having a bad deal like I had."


Written by Jason Vermes. Interview produced by Cassandra Yanez-Leyton.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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