"No one should be seeing money off of a T.I. record if we're not seeing money off of that, period," Grand Hustle's Jason Geter says.
A version of T.I.'s single "I'm Flexin'" has sold 2,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The song, which features Def Jam artist Rick Ross, has been available in the iTunes store since Jan. 24 as part of the DJ Cortez and DJ Ransom Dollars mixtape "Fuck the Competition Vol. 3." But something isn't right: T.I.'s Grand Hustle camp has never licensed this version of the song for retail, and hasn't seen any revenue from these sales.
It's an issue that's plagued rappers who often use mixtapes as promotional items, rather than product for sale. Grand Hustle CEO Jason Geter speculates that DJs partner with distribution companies to mutually profit from major mixtape releases. "Fuck the Competition Vol. 3," distributed by Green Light Records through SongCast, is also up on Amazon and Rhapsody, where the "Flexin'" remix is available for purchase.
"No one should be seeing money off of a T.I. record if we're not seeing money off of that, period," says Geter, who co-founded Grand Hustle with T.I. "With Amazon or iTunes or any major distributor, they should be held accountable."
Both iTunes and Amazon have copyright infringement policies that allow anyone to lodge complaints. (ITunes vows to "terminate the accounts of users who violate others' intellectual property rights" in its copyright policy.) Rights-holders must specifically request that a song be taken down, yet despite this safeguard, tracks often reappear in the digital stores shortly after their removal, requiring artists and management to constantly track the use of their music. Neither iTunes nor Amazon responded to repeated requests for comment.
T.I. isn't the only rapper who has found his songs for sale without consent. New Def Jam Recordings signee 2 Chainz has struggled to keep his mixtape material off digital sites. In November 2011, he released his breakout mixtape, "T.R.U. REALigion," hosted by DJ Drama. Then unsigned, the Atlanta native put up the non-DJ version for sale on digital platforms to profit from the project, which comprised original content. After signing his deal, 2 Chainz' team removed the tape from iTunes as he transferred the masters to the label, but tracks continue to appear on the digital retailer on other compilations. "T.R.U. REALigion" wasn't taken down from Amazon, where it's still available for purchase.
One of the tape's standout tracks, "Riot," can be found on iTunes in remixed form on the compilation "We Turnt Up Vol. 6," released through AMB Digital, a label affiliated with the Independent Online Distribution Alliance/the Orchard. According to SoundScan, the anthem featuring Warner Bros. artist Gucci Mane has sold 1,200 copies since first appearing in the store on Feb. 1. "We Turnt Up" credits the song to "2Chainz & Gucci" -- a slight name variation that doesn't register through any basic search on retail sites. The tactic frequently helps deter artists and management from finding unauthorized tracks. On "We Turnt Up," other names are also modified, such as Rick Ross ("Rozay"), Alley Boy ("Allley Boy") and Jim Jones ("Jimmy Jones").
For 2 Chainz' manager Teknikz, battling mixtape profiteers in the digital realm has become routine. "We constantly have to go after them," says Teknikz, who also manages Travis Porter and Jose Guapo under Street Execs Management. Teknikz physically sifts through online retail sites and makes a list of who illegally distributes their content. "It comes down to doing research and seeing who's putting your stuff up," he says, adding that repeat offenders are a constant hassle. "I was just doing this a month ago, and now I have to go back and do it again."
Mixtapes have appeared at retail for years, legally or not. Throughout the '90s, they were often labeled as "for promotional use only" while bootlegged and sold out of car trunks and on street corners. DJs and rappers often earned profits from those sales. With the rise of the Internet, mixtapes were sold on websites and some even appeared at physical retail as label-sanctioned releases.
Some labels have stepped in to regulate the unauthorized sales. Bad Boy Worldwide VP of marketing Jason Wiley says the imprint monitors mixtapes from artists like Machine Gun Kelly and French Montana since it's beneficial in the long term to promote free material. "It's a constant battle," Wiley says. "We're always tracking our sales, tracking our numbers, seeing how it relates to fans and tour dates. So, in doing all of that, we're looking at this person buying and selling a song illegally."
It's still unclear if distributors are aware that they're perpetuating copyright infringement. The Orchard, for one, declined to comment. Either way, Grand Hustle's Geter sees the major labels as the answer.
"When you say [a T.I.] record sold 1,700 copies, on a big scale, that's nothing," he says. "But [those sales] add up at the end of the day. It's going to be a problem if major labels don't address it and make these companies accountable for their actions."
Additional reporting by chart manager Alex Vitoulis.