Music attorney Bill Hochberg—who’s previously represented Fifth Harmony, as well as the Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley estates—says he doesn’t see how sharing the documents actually aids West in his fight for independence from UMG. “The only thing he gains is that he probably has a lot of record executives either scratching their heads or banging them against the walls right now,” Hochberg says, before citing West’s previous legal squabble with publishing company EMI, which ended with an undisclosed settlement earlier this year. “He tried this with EMI and it didn’t work out. I can’t think of a way that he gets out of this deal, unless—in terms of public relations—he pressures them enough that they let him out. But it seems highly unlikely to me.”
It is possible that West also made a tactical error by posting a screenshot of a text thread between himself and an unnamed lawyer on September 15, in which the lawyer floats the idea of claiming that it was actually UMG that breached the contract by not supporting West enough, and presents the option of entering into litigation as a way to reacquire his masters. “[West] did destroy attorney-client privilege, at least as to that conversation with his attorney,” says Kevin Casini, a Connecticut-based entertainment attorney and adjunct law professor. “Meaning that if they did bring a legal claim, when you get into discovery and evidence, there’s a very good chance that those previously confidential communications are going to now come into evidence.”
Hochberg points out that the release of a 2019 legal memo by West’s then-lawyers, which lays out how his contract terms involving advances, royalties, and distribution fees have evolved since 2011, could also be used against the rapper in court. “There is certainly an argument to be made that he waived his attorney-client privilege, at least to some extent, which could possibly open the door for problems if he happens to get into a legal battle.”
While they may not be immediately fruitful, West’s actions have already inspired other musicians and producers to speak out on their own inequitable business experiences in the music industry. Hit-Boy, who was signed to West’s GOOD Music for two years in the early 2010s and produced Kanye hits like “Ni**as in Paris” and “Clique,” decried his current publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing Group, saying that his last three lawyers have described it as the “worst publishing contract they’ve ever seen.” But West’s contracts also serve to further highlight how important it is for rising artists to take time and consider what kinds of deals they’re willing to sign to further their career in the first place.
“The reality of the business is that even today, for many starting artists, being signed to a label gives them the opportunity to get their material out there on a global level in a way they couldn’t on their own,” says Alter. “Negotiate as strongly as you can, so that payment provisions are as transparent as possible. Limit the number of albums you’re required to deliver, and try to build in a contractual reversion, even if it’s 20 years out. Then, you’ll have the kind of legacy that Kanye talks about wanting for his kids—to live off royalties from the masters that they own.”