Wendy Day: Hip-hop Mentor

Wendy Day went from being a fan of hip-hop to one of the genre's fiercest advocates.


Wendy Day is the first to admit that a 50-year-old white woman with no background in music is an unlikely ally for hip-hop artists. But after selling her condo, investments, and car to start Rap Coalition in 1992, Day has evolved into one of the most powerful weapons rappers have. Dedicated to helping musicians break predatory contracts and educating young hip-hop artists about the industry, Rap Coalition has been central to several multimillion-dollar landmark negotiations for artists including Twista, Eminem, Master P’s No Limit Records, David Banner, and Cash Money Records (including Juvenile and Lil Wayne), and has had an all-star roster of advisors and mentors ranging from the late Tupac Shakur to Chuck D of Public Enemy.

Twenty-two years after founding Rap Coalition, the organization and Day are still leading advocates for both veteran and budding hip-hop artists. In addition to helping artists break unfair contracts, Rap Coalition also acts as an information hub that keeps musicians aware of exploitative practices, a forum where artists with similar needs can connect, and a support group to help artists navigate the business side of the music industry.

GIM: Your site states that rap artists are underpaid compared to other genres. How so?

WD: A lot of artists, when they negotiate their deals, they’ll negotiate for a reduced amount of money because to them it seems like a lot of money and they don’t know what other artists in other genres are making. If a label comes to an artist and says, “OK, we don’t know if you’re going to succeed or not, so we’re going give you a $100,000 advance and out of that advance, you have to make your record, you have to mix and master it, you have to buy all the tracks, you have to clear any samples that you have, and you have to live on that money for however long it takes us to put out your record,” a lot of artists think to themselves, “$100,000, oh my gosh, that’s so much money. I’ll take it.” They don’t stop to think and they don’t have people on their team that are knowledgeable and experienced in the music industry, so they go ahead and they sign on the dotted line thinking that’s a good deal, when in reality, they’re probably worth half a million to three-quarters of a million based on the leverage that they’re bringing into the marketplace.

GIM: Is there any way that an artist can estimate his or her own worth?

WD: If they’re really knowledgeable about the industry and they’ve got around them a team of people who are well connected and have done this before, yeah, they probably can. Could they do it in a vacuum by themselves and be meeting with a major label and know their own value? Probably not. The thing about a negotiation is it’s based on what everyone agrees upon. So if everyone agrees on $10, then the artist is worth $10. If everyone agrees on $10 million, then the artist is worth $10 million. There’s nothing set in stone in this industry that says what an artist’s value is. What a label pays is based on projections of what they think the artist will sell and the amount of money they feel they can make with that artist. It’s all based on spreadsheets, but an artist wouldn’t be privy to that information. In fact, unless the artist’s team is quite savvy, they wouldn’t even know to do those types of projections.

Wendy Day

GIM: [In 1998, Day negotiated a three-year, $30 million deal between Cash Money Records and Universal that forced Universal to offer Cash Money a multimillion-dollar advance on artists while still allowing Cash Money to retain 80 percent of the sales profits, along with all of their masters and publishing rights. Day later sued and settled out of court with Cash Money over her own payment.] What made that particular deal so groundbreaking?

WD: What made it so groundbreaking is that it was an 80/20 split, where Cash Money was able to retain 80 percent of the income and Universal made 20 percent of the income, but they still funded the label. Distribution deals very rarely had advances and they certainly didn’t have advances of $2 million per year to help a label build out their [recording artist base] and their marketing and promotional [capabilities].

The thing that I felt was so groundbreaking about that deal, was if they wanted to leave after the deal was up in three years, they could take their masters and go because they owned the masters. Usually, when a company advances money, they do not let you have any ownership of the masters, meaning in three years if you wanted to leave, you could not take the artist with you that you’ve already put out through that distributor. They have to stay behind. In the Cash Money situation, if they wanted to leave and take BG and [Lil] Wayne and Juvenile and Hot Boys and Big Tymers with them, they could. At that point in time, that was unheard of and as far as I know, it still is unheard of.

GIM: At this point, how common is it for artists to have some retention over their masters?

WD: It’s rare. It’s always been rare. It will probably always be rare. The ownership stays with whoever puts up the money and most artists do not put up their own money. They do in the case of a Macklemore and Ryan [Lewis], but they’re more the oddity than they are the typical example of an artist in the music industry. Most artists sign to to major labels in some form or fashion, and then as soon as that label puts up the money to build that career, meaning they’re putting up the money to market, promote the record, create the record, put that artist out on tour, once the money comes into play, the exchange for that money is usually some ownership of the publishing and all of the ownership of the master, so it’s very rare.

GIM: You’ve spoken about the need for artists to carefully consider labels before signing to one and to consider a label a two-way relationship rather than a gift that’s being given to the artist. What should the artist be looking for in labels?

WD: They want to look for somebody, first and foremost, that has the experience in putting out the type of music that they make, meaning if you’re a rap artist and you’re seeking a partnership deal in a label, you don’t want to go to somebody that’s had exclusively rock acts on their roster or exclusively country acts on their roster. You want to do business with somebody who’s had some experience in the rap marketplace, because it’s very unique unto itself.

The relationships that you build at retail and with the consumer are based on a specific genre, so if you’re looking to do a deal with a label, you want somebody who has experience in the rap marketplace. You want somebody who’s had success putting out records before and selling music and planning tours and most importantly, you want somebody who has deep enough pockets to do this properly. I’ve seen a lot of artists sign deals with labels that only have $20,000 or $30,000 to invest into the project. The problem is you can’t do this for $20,000 or $30,000. It’s physically impossible, so the artist is set up to fail from the get-go just based on the fact that the label is under-financed.

Wendy Day

GIM: With online distribution, with there being so many ways artists can promote themselves, is a major label necessary in order to have a successful career?

WD: I don’t believe it is. The only time that I can see that a major label really comes into play is if an artist needs the funding. If an artist has no money and no way to approach investors or no opportunity to get investment from outside of the music industry, then yeah, they’re probably going to have to sign to a record label, unless they’re independently wealthy. The only time that I really see a need for a major label is for funding. Pretty much, an artist can hire all of the same people that the major labels do, they can gain the same experience that the major labels have through hiring people that are experienced, so really the funding is the only aspect of the label that I see. And in my personal experience, it’s easier to find an investor than it is to get a record deal.

GIM: Where can an artist look for those investors?

WD: I would look to friends and family [first]. I would look for people that were already in the music business that were looking to invest in new talent. I would attend chamber of commerce meetings in my area and start interacting with people that have wealth and were looking to divest their investments. I would interact with attorneys and accountants in the music business that are around high-wealth individuals. Sometimes attorneys can pair an investor that has come to them for help with an artist that has come to them for contractual work. It’s pretty much the same for finding an investor in any industry. You put together a business plan and then once your business plan is together, you put it out into the marketplace and you shop investors.

GIM: You’ve also spoken about the need to develop a business plan early in a rap career. What goes into that?

WD: It’s not really a business plan. It’s more of a career plan. It’s figuring out what you need to do, how you’re going to do it, when you’re going to do it, who your competition is, how you’re going to market yourself to stand apart from all the other artists out here, and in what timeline you’re going to do that. The last part of the plan should be what it’s going to cost to get your goals accomplished. That’s just a matter of people figuring out exactly what they’re trying to accomplish and then pricing out what they’re going to spend to get there. If your goal is to build your career as an independent artist in a five-state area, you’re going to need to know what it costs to work your record in that five-state area, figure out what the costs are going to be for t-shirts that you’re going give away, for touring, for gas and hotels, for attending events in the music industry. You may want to go to South By Southwest in Austin in March, so that needs to be in your budget.

You figure out exactly what your goal is and how you’re going to get there and then you plan out the financial resources of what it’s going to take to get there. Without that road map, I just don’t see how it’s possible for any artist to succeed. I think what’s going to happen is what most artists do. They wake up one morning, they decide they want to be a rapper, they start making music, and then they start giving their music to anybody that will accept it. Whether they spam links on email, whether they spam links on Twitter or Facebook or they say, “Look at my latest video,” or whatever. They think that they’ve got movement forward, but they really don’t because most of the people they’re reaching are kind of annoyed that they’re being spammed by these links. Once an artist figures out exactly what they need to do to be successful, they can put together a plan that outlines how to get to A to Z. They can actually achieve success.

GIM: In your book, you also talk about the importance of building buzz before signing onto a label, and you cite 50 Cent as a good example of someone who was able to keep that buzz going. What specifically about 50 Cent impressed you in that regard?

WD: What impressed me was that he was able to keep the buzz going. Most artists can’t do that. Most recently, 2 Chainz has done a wonderful job with that and I compare him to someone like a Trinidad Jame$, who had one song. He sort of flashed in the marketplace. Everyone knew who he was pretty quickly, and then he dissipated as quickly as he came because his success was not built on a foundation that was strong enough to hold him up. [50 Cent] kept putting out mixtape after mixtape after mixtape, and people embraced it and they began to look for his music. As he became hotter and hotter, word spread larger and wider. Finally Eminem said, “You know what? I believe in this guy. I’m going to put some money behind him,” so he signed him to Shady [Records] and then consequently to Aftermath [Entertainment] and Interscope [Records].

GIM: Why do you think he was able to sustain the buzz?

WD: He was able to sustain it because he kept putting out good music, and by “good music,” I don’t mean critically acclaimed good music, although it was. I’m talking about music that resonates with the fans. When you’re able to reach your consumer base directly and you’re able to give your fans the type of music that they want to hear, they’re going to keep coming back for more. They’re hungry for great music. Macklemore is a great example of somebody doing that currently. Problem is a great example of somebody doing this currently. The whole Tyler The Creator movement, the whole Odd Future movement is a great example. 2 Chainz, Future, The Migos here in Atlanta are starting to build a really strong buzz. I think that as long as artists can stay consistent and put out the kind of music that the fans want to hear and have an image that resonates with those fans, I think they can keep their buzz going for as long as necessary.

GIM: What would you say is your greatest career achievement and your greatest challenge?

WD: I think my biggest challenge is exactly what has been my biggest success and that’s staying relevant over a 20-year period. There are so many people who started out when I started out 21 years ago that have fallen off because they haven’t figured out a way to adjust and stay relevant in the music business. I think, as a 50-year-old white woman who still loves rap, the most difficult thing for me is to stay relevant and to continue offering services and help to artists who will embrace that help and understand that they need that help and welcome that help.

All through my whole career, it’s really been a struggle to stay relevant to new artists. New artists coming into the business, they don’t really stop and study who’s who or the track records of people, they just kind of embrace whoever is in their face and say, “Help me. Help me get to the next level.” Sometimes that’s a person who can and sometimes that’s a person who can’t. My goal has always been to reach the artist as they come into the industry and to help educate them so they can find people who can help them get to the next level pretty quickly without losing a ton of money. That’s been my biggest accomplishment and that’s also been the hardest thing to do. As I get older, it’s harder and harder for me to reach a 17 or 18-year-old rapper coming into the music industry.

Wendy Day’s e-book, How to Get a Record Deal: The Knowledge to Succeed, is currently available through iTunes.

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