‘Independent artists can do everything that major labels can.’

MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfil. Inspiring Women is supported by INgrooves Music Group, which provides distribution, marketing and rights management tools and services to content creators and owners.

Wendy Day is renowned in the US hip-hop business for brokering some of the most pioneering artist-friendly record deals in history.

In the mid-nineties, she secured two landmark agreements whose influence still reverberates today: Master P and No Limit’s infamous 85/15 distribution deal with Priority Records, and Twista’s 50/50 JV with Atlantic – which The Source at the time called “the best deal in the history of black music”.

Then, in 1998, Day changed the game again, helping lead a $30m deal for Cash Money with Universal which reportedly saw the indie label keep the lion’s share of future profits.

Day, a business consultant to some of rap’s biggest names for the past 25 years, has also helped the likes of Lil Wayne, Eminem and David Banner with the finer points of their business contracts.

In total, her clients have sold over a billion records – and they all owe her a debt of gratitude.

Day’s love affair with rap music started back in 1980 when she was attending art school in Pennsylvania.

She was waiting for her favourite band – British rock act The Psychedelic Furs – to take the stage. (The Furs are the very same band, incidentally, that Sir Lucian Grainge signed to a publishing deal during his first job in the music industry at April Music.) 

First, though, came the support act: Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. The energy and passion of the now-legendary New York group left Day intoxicated.

“I went from looking at my watch wondering when The Furs were coming on stage to just being mesmerised,” she recalls. “When [Grandmaster Flash] got off stage I didn’t want it to stop.”

Day had caught the hip-hop bug: she left the suburbs behind and moved to New York, where she sold advertising for magazines by day, and embraced the city’s burgeoning rap scene by night.

And the further she got into the music, the more she found out about the questionable deals its artists were signing with labels.

Eventually, in 1992, aged 30, Day decided to become part of the solution.

After taking a course on pop music business led by legendary music accountant Bert Padell, Day gambled her life’s savings and launched her own not-for-profit company, Rap Coalition.

The firm was designed to pull artists out of bad deals and educate them about how the music industry works.

“I don’t ever want to hear an artist say, ‘Gee, I was a star at 25 and now I’m a failure at 30.'”

“The thing that I took away from Bert’s course was that once an artist isn’t making money anymore, nobody cares about them. I had a real problem with that,” she tells MBW. 

When ‘360’ deals started coming into vogue in 2005, Day turned her back on the major labels out of principle. 

She has since primarily focused on finding third-party funding partners for artists, and arming talent with the know-how they need to remain independent.

She explains: “My goal is to set artists up and help them build out their companies to structure, organize and learn how to market and promote their music so that they become millionaires.

“I don’t ever want to hear an artist say, ‘Gee, I was a star at 25 and now I’m a failure at 30.’ My goal is to give them a viable source of income for the rest of their careers.”

Day is currently in the process of setting up a talent incubator that will find investor partners for artists at the beginning of their careers.

Her recent clients include Atlanta rapper Trouble, who recently signed to Interscope, as well as new names Julio Foolio, Tax G, Raury, Krazy Obilla and 80 REEF.

Below, MBW asks her about the major labels, what drives her in business and much more besides.

A few high profile artists, especially in hip-hop, have signed major label deals that exist as joint ventures in recent years. Is that happening more frequently than ever before?

Absolutely. In the beginning of my career it was very hard to do that. Twista’s deal was a joint venture that was a 50/50 split with Atlantic but getting that deal was very challenging — we had to sell hundreds of thousands of CDs.

Back when I started in the ‘90s you didn’t have a choice, you were either signed or unsigned. Today independent artists can do everything that the major labels can, within reason, as long as they have the know-how and budget.

“when I started in the ‘90s you were either signed or unsigned. Today independent artists can do everything that the major labels can, within reason, as long as they have the know-how and budget.”

An artist can have a really decent buzz, be making income outside of their own region and streaming really great numbers, and be able to get a more leveraged deal.

If an artist can wait and put the income they are receiving back into their career and build that career large enough, they become really valuable, like a Chance the Rapper, Tech N9ne, Lil Pump or Tekashi.

Then they have the choice — they can either stay independent or go and sign a deal with a major label.

The key is to build your fanbase and cater to that.

Know who your fans are, go direct to them and market and promote yourself so that your fans know your music is out there, and you stay above all the over saturation that’s in the marketplace.

What is the role of major labels today?

They are great at building superstars. If you’re a top tier artist, like Drake, Beyonce, Lady Gaga or The Weeknd, the major is an amazing vehicle because they can actually properly fund that going forward.

Once those artists get to that level and their contracts are beginning to expire, I’d like to see them start their own corporation.

“I’d love to see Taylor Swift start Taylor Swift Records and use her fame to put other artists in play.”

I’d love to see Taylor Swift start Taylor Swift Records and use her fame to put other artists in play, give them really friendly deals and help them build their companies.

It’s a great way to keep music alive and keep artists paid. It might be a bit idealistic but, for the most part, it’s a proven business model.

Is there anything standing in the way of that happening?

There are better choices today than there were five years ago or even a year ago.

There’s more deals being done by the major labels in hip-hop now than I’ve seen in over a decade, maybe two.

I haven’t seen a signing frenzy in hip-hop like what is going on today since the late ‘90s. It’s very encouraging.

It’s not my business model – I’m over here starting an incubator so we can keep people independent – but I do see that there is choice and the choice is what matters.

What is the definition of a good deal?

A good deal is a deal where everybody wins and everybody is making money.

Sometimes artists get so caught up in getting a deal that they don’t realise that’s not the goal – the goal is to build a successful career in music.

A great deal should help an artist get to the level where they are financially secure and able to do whatever they want to do in life.

Where are the biggest problems in today’s music business?

As the popularity of streaming grows, playlists are becoming so important and it’s still a little bit challenging for independents to get on those lists.

Although we have access to all the same people to get to the playlist folks, there is still lopsidedness at that level.

We need to make that a little bit more democratic and fair and that’s the responsibility of the platforms.

In terms of [record] deals, I think that ownership at some point needs to revert back to the artist once they get to a certain point.

Is streaming a good or bad thing for the music business?

It’s been great for independents, they make money, they can go direct to their artist dashboard and see exactly where their music is streaming and who the biggest fans are.

It’s the most amazing thing when I can take an artist into Macon, Georgia, of all places, and do a listening session with [their] Top 50 Spotify or Apple listeners.

We are able to touch the fans and have access to data more so than ever before.

I hear the major labels and artists bitch and moan about the pay scale, I’m not saying that’s fair, but I am saying that a lot of my artists make a lot of money from streaming.

What do you make of Lyor Cohen’s assertion that YouTube is needed to bring diversity to distribution?

I don’t know about that but I do think that Lyor is a company man and when he went to YouTube he drank the YouTube Kool-Aid.

He’s also a very viable business person and smart as fuck.

I wouldn’t want to see [YouTube] go out of business but if they have a surplus of cash every year and they are not paying the artists, I have an extreme problem with that.

What do you make of today’s hip-hop scene?

I love it.

While a lot of my peers came into the music business during the “golden age” of rap in the early and mid ‘90s, I had already been listening to rap music for 15 years at that point.

I’ve loved seeing generations of people that are able to make money in the music business because of hip-hop.

I believe that music is made for the masses so when the new artists come out, they are not trying to sound like the artists of yesterday, they are making music for their peers.

While I may not buy a Lil Yachty or Lil Pump album and listen to it all the way through, I do stream their music on Spotify because I love the energy, how they are reaching their fans and how their fans are embracing them.

It’s good for the fans and good for the business.

What’s your take on today’s equality and diversity debate in the music business?

I’m 26 years in and it’s always been a problem.

From where I sit, it’s a problem that is not going to fix itself because the people at the top, who are mostly white men, aren’t willing to relinquish power.

“We can demand change from below all we want but it’s not a government we can overthrow. Powerful corporations are running the music business.”

So we are always going to have a diversity and gender deficiency when there are no positions to put people in. Until we make a conscious effort and start giving ownership to people of colour and women it’s not going to change.

We can demand change from below all we want but it’s not a government we can overthrow. Powerful corporations are running the music business.

What career advice do you have for young people looking to set up their own company?

Learn how to market and promote music.

So many artists make really great music, put it up on Instagram or Twitter and say, ‘There, I’m done… Oh my God, I’m not a star yet, what happened?’ because they don’t really understand the process.

Don’t look at people posting stuff on social media and think that is how it’s done. Investigate and learn, go to all of the seminars and conferences, both online and in real life. Build relationships and learn who your fanbase is. 

If you have to work for free within a company to learn how it works, do it. The knowledge is the basis for all of this.

“the music business is not an intuitive industry, it looks like it is, but it’s not. knowledge is the basis for all of this.”

We have an age gap right now in hip-hop. There are the folks my age and then those who are brand new coming into the music industry.

The people in my age bracket are not embracing the youth and it’s really frustrating because music is a young business.

Most artists as they are coming in are aged 18-25 and the bulk of fans that monetise music are 13-26.

So somebody that’s in their 40s really needs to start embracing youth and helping them grow so that when [those young people] get into their late 20s and early 30s, they are already contributing positively to the music business.

I see young people banging their heads and that shouldn’t happen – they shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

What are your predictions for the future of the music business?

I think it’s definitely going to go more independent.

I see an influx of funding coming into the music business, at least here in Atlanta, and [lack of funding] is one of the areas that’s been a problem during my career.

Also, there are more and more people losing their jobs at the major labels, because they are being aged out by the new generation or because of over saturation due to technology.

They have the know-how to set up and run labels so I think those people will begin to start more companies, which will help the growth of independents.

There are going to be more people like me that not only want to nurture artists and help them grow their careers, but teach them how to do it to make sure they can earn a sustainable living.

Inspiring Women is supported by INGrooves, which powers creativity by providing distribution, marketing and rights management tools and services to content creators and owners. INgrooves is a leader in the independent music distribution and marketing industry, provides independent labels, established artists and other content owners with the most transparent and scalable distribution tools including analytics, rights management services, and thoughtful marketing solutions to maximize sales in today’s dynamic global marketplace.

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