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Planet Money started a record label to release a 47-year-old song about inflation

NPR's Planet Money recently got ahold of a 47-year-old song about inflation that has never been released. They decided to start a record label to try to get the song out into the world.

You can listen to the story by clicking the play button above, and read more about the efforts in the Planet Money newsletter.


Broadcast transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Earlier this year, our Planet Money podcast got their hands on a song about inflation that was recorded 47 years ago but never released. So to explain how the music industry works, they're releasing it. From Planet Money Records, here's Erika Beras and Sarah Gonzalez.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: This is a song we became obsessed with.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION (WITH SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX)")

EARNEST JACKSON: (Singing) Inflation is in the nation.

BERAS: "Inflation" the song was written and recorded by Earnest Jackson, backed by a Baton Rouge band called Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux.

JACKSON: Yeah, Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux (laughter).

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Earnest Jackson has been making music since he was 14, but he's never made it in the music industry.

JACKSON: I've never been signed by a label. That's my hope and dream.

BERAS: Everyone from this band went on to be pretty successful musicians, playing with famous people. And when the keyboardist, Kinny Landrum, sent us the song, he said they wanted the same for Earnest.

KINNY LANDRUM: He's one of the best singers I know.

GONZALEZ: So we decided to try to start our very own record label to understand the music industry.

BERAS: So we called up a lawyer to the stars.

DONALD PASSMAN: Well, I talked to Stevie not too long ago.

BERAS: This is Don Passman. And that Stevie is Stevie Wonder. Don negotiates record deals for a lot of big-time musicians like Taylor Swift, Quincy Jones, Stevie.

GONZALEZ: Wait. Can we be a label?

PASSMAN: Sure. Why not?

GONZALEZ: Like, what do we have to do to be a label?

PASSMAN: Say you're a label (laughter).

GONZALEZ: All right. We're a label - Planet Money Records. Don says a typical record contract, even for an established musician, is this - the musician gets 20% of what the song makes. The label gets 80%. So if we were acting like a real record label and we made $100...

PASSMAN: The artist would get 20% or $20.

GONZALEZ: And we get 80?

PASSMAN: Yes.

BERAS: That seems unfair.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. It seems like a bad deal for the artist, right?

BERAS: But Don says the label is the one doing all the behind-the-scenes stuff - marketing and negotiating contracts, taking the legal and financial risk.

GONZALEZ: So I think we're, like, a nice record label.

BERAS: Oh, like he gets 80%, we get 20%?

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

PASSMAN: No, that's - nobody would make that deal ever.

BERAS: Oh, no (laughter).

PASSMAN: I would go so far as to say, congratulations. That may possibly be the worst record deal I've ever seen from a record company point of view.

GONZALEZ: OK, our deal isn't quite as bad as it sounds because in addition to acting like the label, we are also acting like a publisher. Both those things generate money in different ways. So if this song does make money, we have more pots of money to pull from.

BERAS: So we write up our deal, put it in a briefcase and head to Baton Rouge to hand-deliver it to our artist.

So we have something for you.

JACKSON: What is it?

BERAS: What do you think it is?

JACKSON: Oh, my God. I don't have any idea. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIEFCASE LATCHES UNLOCKING)

JACKSON: Oh, is that the contract?

GONZALEZ: We tell Earnest we are going to start by just uploading the song to every music streaming site there is and that making money is not going to be easy. To make money, lots of people need to listen to the song. They need to stream it. For every stream, the big music streaming sites like Spotify and Apple Music, they pay out between a third of a penny and a full penny per play. And not all of that always goes to the artist.

BERAS: There are actually online calculators where you can figure out across all the streaming sites how much money you can make hypothetically.

So I'm pulling out my little royalty calculator.

JACKSON: OK.

BERAS: So if a million people listen, we make $4,000. OK.

GONZALEZ: If a million people listen, you get 3,200.

JACKSON: Eighty percent.

GONZALEZ: You get the 80%.

JACKSON: I get the 80%, and y'all get the 20%.

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

BERAS: But however much we make, it's going to have to be sliced and diced in more ways than we expected. Don Passman, our music biz lawyer, says normally, you do pay the other musicians.

PASSMAN: Now, they don't have to get the same thing Earnest does. In fact, they shouldn't.

GONZALEZ: Don says the singer gets most of it, especially because in this case, the singer wrote the song and the melody. Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux was kind of like backup.

BERAS: So Don says the standard deal for them is a flat fee and waivers. They waive their rights to the song. So we created waivers for the band. But when they go out, some of them are not happy.

LANDRUM: Well, the contract, as written, is completely unusable.

BERAS: This is Kinny, the keyboardist, again. In case the song does become popular, he wants a real share in it. He wants royalties.

LANDRUM: The amount of income generated by this thing, which may not be - hell, I don't even know if it's going to generate $200. I don't know, but I don't care.

GONZALEZ: All right. There are a few ways to get royalties on a song. Like, you could have a copyright on the song. And within this copyright, there are two ways to get paid out. There is a songwriter share for the person who wrote the lyrics, wrote the melody. And then there is what is called a publisher share. Kinny is saying he wants the band to have a piece of this slice of the royalty pie, the publisher share - so not Earnest's part.

LANDRUM: We're not taking from the songwriter part of the money and only from the...

GONZALEZ: And you don't want that.

LANDRUM: Right, and we don't want that.

BERAS: And this part? This is the part artists in the know often want in on. This is the part that can conceivably make money. And Earnest thinks the band should get something.

JACKSON: Of course they should get something. I'm not saying they shouldn't get nothing. Let them have it, and let's get the ball game on, OK?

GONZALEZ: We should say it is really the band who should determine who gets what share of the song, not us. So they did that, and we ended up with a contract.

BERAS: There are many different royalties to divvy up. One is called the public performance royalty on the underlying music composition, and this one is pretty representative of the whole deal. On this royalty, Earnest will get 67.5% of the profit. The rest of the band splits 17.5%, and we get the remaining 15%.

GONZALEZ: Accountants will spend the next few years splitting up this little sliver of a song and that little sliver of a song. It is actually all very complicated. And Kinny, he's kind of like, yeah, that's the price of getting into this business.

LANDRUM: Well, I hope we have a hit. It'll all be worthwhile if there's a hit. If you don't, it hadn't cost anybody anything but a little bit of time at this point. So it's...

GONZALEZ: Well, it cost us a fair amount.

BERAS: Yeah, we've spent some money.

We have already spent at least $10,000 on lawyers alone.

GONZALEZ: But we went all in on this song, and Earnest, he is ready.

JACKSON: It feels damn good. Going to see what happens.

BERAS: And we are happy to announce we have dropped our single. You can now hear "Inflation" the song in its entirety wherever you stream your music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION (WITH SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX)")

JACKSON: (Singing) People, stop what you're doing and listen to what I have to say.

BERAS: We're trying to see if we can make this song a hit, so we need people to listen to it.

JACKSON: Yeah. Stream it. You know, get it on - get it online. Pull it down, y'all. Listen to this song.

BERAS: The song is called "Inflation" by Earnest Jackson and Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux, brought to you by Planet Money Records.

Erika Beras.

GONZALEZ: Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INFLATION (WITH SUGAR DADDY AND THE GUMBO ROUX)")

JACKSON: (Singing) Inflation, why don't you get...

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Erika Beras
Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.
Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.