Singer-Songwriter The-Dream: 'Artists Are Treated Like Slaves'

Andrew Zaeh
The-Dream photographed in 2015.

"Umbrella" songwriter, entrepreneur and R&B singer Terius Nash, aka The-Dream, 37, calls major labels "evil" and carries only cash. The artist expounded to Billboard about race and and the music industry -- and how there are firmly entrenched double standards. 

You recently formed a record label, Contra-Paris, through Capitol. Why start a label in this climate?

First off, it’s a 50/50 partnership. I’ve operated as a songwriter and producer, so not everybody has that leverage. Contra-Paris is a response to how things work in the industry today -- the evil in the music business.

What’s the root of that evil?

When the Atlanta Braves were owned by Ted Turner, he was very passionate and did whatever it took to do something good -- and eventually he made money. Labels used to be the same way. Now they’re corporations, and it’s only about their stock. For me, that’s where the evil started.

Review: The-Dream Shows a New Dimension on 'Crown'

Plenty of passionate owners have built record labels that ripped off their artists.

That’s because artists are treated like slaves. We have terrible contracts, we have streaming services that pay one-tenth of a cent per play, we have no laws to protect us.

If you were put in charge of the entire music industry, what’s the first thing you would do to level the playing field?

Unionize the artists and songwriters. Give them the power to say, “No, we won’t only take a few cents while you sit back and make all the money [when] we do all the work.”

You previously recorded for, and worked in A&R, at Def Jam. Have you ever felt that your record company has been on your side, fighting for you?

Not one time. The record company has fought for themselves, never for me.

The-Dream Reveals His Sinatra Obsession & Why Coldplay Is His Ultimate Collaborator

Taylor Swift and Big Machine pulled her music from Spotify. As a label owner and creator, do you support that?

I can support it, but I could never do the same. I’m black.

Meaning what?

It’s a race thing. It’s always going to be a race thing. For one, if I took my records off of Spotify, it would affect the people who listen to my music for free and may not have the means otherwise. Taylor Swift fans probably have the means to go and buy a Taylor Swift record.

The-Dream Announces 'Royalty: The Prequel' EP, Launches Contra-Paris Label

What role does race play in how artists get paid today?

If you got a hit and you’re white, there are no limits to what you can do. If you’re black and you have a hit today but can’t do it again tomorrow, then your ass is out of here. When the industry uses you up, that’s it. You’re gone. It’s a constant battle for our culture. We can’t say no to radio, we can’t say no to Spotify, and we can’t have a concert because nobody will come. And the whole time, everybody is taking from our culture to enhance the pop side of things. By the way, the pop side doesn’t mean you have to be white. Bruno Mars is pop. Nobody listens to Bruno Mars like he’s a black artist. Which I’m sure for him, he’s like, “Thank God.” There are urban artists and then there are pop artists, and urban artists get things taken from them. We create the swag, and everybody knows it. 

Dr. Luke has been remaking [Rihanna's] “Umbrella” since we made “Umbrella”! I tell him that to his face! He has been making it over and over, and pop radio loves it every time.

What do you make of Tidal?

I think my good friend Jay Z said it best: Apple makes a billion dollars doing something; we have no problem with it. We’ll buy 8,000 iPhones. But if a black man does it, immediately people say, “Wait, hasn’t he already made enough money?” 

Kelly Rowland, The-Dream Talk Emotional 'Dirty Laundry' Single: Exclusive

I noticed you were carrying a Versace fanny pack, and when I asked what was inside, you showed me a wad of $100 bills. What’s the deal with that?

It’s a cultural thing. Whenever I [encounter] a nice suburban family -- black or white, but most of the time white -- they always have the same reaction: “Why you all have all this money on you?” I don’t believe in cards. I believe in cash. I’d carry gold if it wasn’t so heavy.

This story originally appeared in the June 27 issue of Billboard.