Fair Pay for Every Play, Ep 8: Nona Hendryx - The Business of Music

On this week’s episode of Fair Pay for Every Play, host Kristian Luoma, sits down with singer, songwriter and record producer, Nona Hendryx to discuss the economics of music. There is a business in music, and it is worth billions. However, importantly for artists, there is sentimental and artistic value worth its equivalent.
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“I didn’t come from a family that was involved in music or the music business… so I had no idea about the business or what it was like. I think at the time, it was just something you did for fun. Probably for the young people today it’s like ‘oh, let’s make a band! Let’s have fun!’

“I didn’t have any idea about the music business. I had an idea about music because I loved it. The difference then in terms of transparency and what I was getting into, well our contract was 3 pages long. That tells you right there what the business was like.”

Nona became a singer almost by accident after agreeing to sing live with a local group. She then went on to become one of the founding members of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, who years later were better known as LaBelle when they earned their number one hit ‘Lady Marmalade’. To date, she has released eight studio albums and oversaw the release of others as a partner of record label, Rhythmbank.

Currently, as an Ambassador of Art History and Music, Nona is collaborating with Berkeley College of Music students on Dream Machine, a virtual performance experience.

As an artist and mentor, Nona speaks about the power of recognising your personal value when making music and how to ensure it is protected.

Here’s the notes:


00:00 — Introduction to Fair Pay for Every Play and to guest, Nona Hendryx

02:03 — Discussing Nona’s career to date

04:18 — The challenges of making music full time

07:25 — What Nona wishes she knew when she started out making music

08:41 — Working with Bobby Banks creating record label, Rhythmbank

11:15 — Think before you sign — signing on the dotted line of a music contract

15:00 — Working at Berkeley College of Music and innovating virtual performance with the Dream Machine

19:40 — The power and importance of an artist recognising their own value

25:04 — Concluding words

Working with the right people in a fair commitment

Throughout Nona’s impressive career, the music industry has undergone many transformations. Citing a shift in the landscape of publishers and labels and the different mediums available to distribute and consume music, Nona says that the biggest challenge remains the same and that is access.

Recalling when she started to make and release music, she says:

“It all depended on where you came from, who you knew, and what access you had to be signed to a label. Being signed to a major label, well they were the sentinels of the music business, and you needed that power behind your distribution. The major labels have funding to offer you, that and touring.”

Funding allows payment for musicians, getting a push behind a release and getting on the road and connecting with people. In addition, there is a hurdle when it comes to picking the best manager or agent who can help with business management and knowing what is best for an artist.

Often, creative people do not consider the financial elements of making music or what is involved to ensure that is available and then protected. Unfortunately, top funding from major backing is rarely supplied. Therefore, it is important to make sure that whoever an artist works with is being transparent and has their best interest at heart.

“I always knew my commitment to the label or to the manager or to the agent, but I never really knew their commitment to me. What is it that they really do, to earn my loyalty and my music or earn the percentages that they take from my income?”

Think before you sign

In 2005, Nona started a partnership with Bobby Banks on record label, Rhythmbank. Her role was to manage and oversee the day-to-day responsibilities of running a music label. She recalls that this gave great experience in understanding what a record label is, how they operate and what they should be doing for artists.

Pulling from her own experiences working with labels, she says:

“One of the things that has always bugged me is that when an artist is no longer with a label, the label retains ownership of the masters. If I get a loan from a bank and I buy a house with the loan, when I pay the loan off to the bank, I own the house. If I buy land, and I borrow money from a bank or someone to buy land. If I pay the bank back or anybody, the money back, I own the land. I do not own my masters. The record companies own those forever. And you have to either sue or, you know, go to court and if you’re lucky to get your masters back, even after they have recouped the money that they gave you to make the master. That to me is unfair.”

When Rhythmbank stopped operating, Nona returned all the music to the artist.

An artist rarely enters the music business as a businessperson, but instead for passion, love, and art. However, they should recognise it as such and take the consideration to control how they are being exploited and how their music is being exploited. Nona insists that an artist should understand what a contract means for the artist personally and for their work.

“Take your time [reading the contract]. Read it. Re-read it. Read it again. I know you want to get to making music and becoming famous but the tears afterward because you did not take the time to read, last longer than the excitement and the joy of somebody saying they want to sign you.”

Know your numbers

We know that you can’t have access to everything, but an artist should make use of what they do have access to. With digital advancements like social media analytics and streaming data, artists can work smartly to navigate a global marketplace.

When used correctly, artists can become more aware of their power and worth. Nona says that previously, artists have been treated like children and kept in the dark about the figures behind the scenes. However, numbers represent individual people who care about the music and what that artist is doing. Knowing how many people are listening can help them recognise economic value as well as the sentimental worth. She suggests that artists should know what is keeping “the train running” and be able to contribute towards decisions based on that.

“Artists are getting better at asking for what they deserve. I think that that is the difference. I think businesses are often built from a place of passion and a desire to make something to be shared. But then it becomes a business. Now, because there is the ability to have more data about what is going on, not only in your town, in your state, in your country, but around the world, artists have a better view of who their audience is, where their audience is and how many people have bought something.

“With more knowledge you have more power.”

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