On Sept. 16, Kanye West made headlines by posting multiple tweets about the unfair nature of his recording deals, decrying the music industry as “modern day slavery” and eventually uploading screenshots of his Universal Records contracts. Two days later, pop artist Austin Mahone tweeted at West, expressing his gratitude for bringing the issue to light.
“Thank you for what you’re doing,” Mahone wrote to West. “I have a story to tell too.”
Mahone purchased his master recordings back from Cash Money Records when he left the label in 2016, he revealed to his 9.3 million followers in a Twitter thread the following week. He also shared that he did so thanks to $1 million that he received from his mentor and frequent collaborator, Pitbull.
The YouTube star-turned-singer-songwriter, who became a teen-pop sensation in the early ’10s thanks to his knack for rhythmic pop hooks and substantial social following, was just 19 years old when the negotiations to buy back his masters began, he told Billboard in a recent call. At the time, he was too young to understand the finer points of the discussions, or why he needed to retain those rights. Now, the 24-year-old says that he was incredibly fortunate to have gotten that type of ownership of his catalog.
“It took me a year or two to really realize how rare and important it is to have that,” says Mahone. “So I’m so blessed and thankful to have them.”
Mahone credits the savvy move to his longtime manager, Mike Blumstein, who signed the San Antonio native to his Chase Records imprint when he was a teen talent posting covers of Drake and Jason Mraz songs to YouTube. After releasing the singles “Say Somethin’” (co-written by Mike Posner) and the Flo Rida collaboration “Say You’re Just a Friend” in 2012, Mahone signed to Cash Money the following year, and announced a multi-million dollar venture between Cash Money and Chase. Cash Money has historically been known as a hip-hop label, but Mahone became one of their flagship pop artists thanks in part to Blumstein’s existing relationship with Cash Money label founders Bryan “Baby” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams.
“All the labels were calling, but Cash Money just felt like a good fit,” says Blumstein. Mahone’s first Cash Money release, the 2014 EP The Secret, spawned his highest-charting Hot 100 hit, “Mmm Yeah” featuring Pitbull, which peaked at No. 49 and has over 200 million YouTube views to date. However, Blumstein says that personnel changes at Cash Money around that time hindered progress on a proper Mahone full-length, and by the end of 2015, Mahone asked to leave the label.
“It was a pretty easy conversation with Baby and Slim,” Blumstein recalls. “It was, ‘Look, we want to leave, and these are the reasons why, and we’d like our masters back, what we all built.’ And at that time, they gave us a number [to buy back the masters], and that number was a million dollars.” (Reps for Cash Money did not respond to Billboard’s requests for comment.)
Mahone’s discography was not robust at the time his management requested the opportunity to purchase his master recordings — Blumstein estimates that they were buying a catalog of 25 to 30 songs, none of which had become top 40 hits. Yet Blumstein says that he made a bet on the continued rise of streaming five years ago, predicting that ownership of Mahone’s intellectual property would ultimately prove more valuable than the upfront charge.
“I didn’t have a crystal ball, but I had a guess,” he explains. “I saw what Spotify and Apple were doing, and knew that they would have to figure out the right way to monetize this stuff. … Regardless if we made the money back from the actual music, or if it was made back by other means, through shows or endorsements or whatever, he would always have his music.”
The first person Blumstein reached out to for the $1 million was Pitbull, a longtime friend and associate whom he had known in Miami before he became an international hitmaker, and who quickly became a mentor and personal champion to Mahone when the young singer moved to Miami at the age of 15. According to Blumstein, discussions began with Pitbull during his New Year’s Eve party in Miami at the end of 2015, at which Mahone performed.
An official agreement — a 50-50 deal until the $1 million was recouped by Pitbull, then a reduced percentage afterwards with points on Mahone’s touring revenue, according to sources familiar with the deal — was finalized a week later at Pitbull’s Miami home, and Mahone’s masters were officially purchased back from Cash Money in early 2016.
“Pit’s just always looking out, man,” says Mahone. “I’m just thankful that he believes in me so much to put a million on me. I think he knew it was going to come back very quickly, so it wasn’t a , but I can’t thank him enough — I’ll be thanking him until the day I die, honestly.”
Mahone has said that he has already made back the $1 million “and much more over the years” by owning his masters. While exact revenue figures have not been disclosed, Mahone’s catalog (not including any collaborations) has generated 195,000 album consumption units from June 30, 2016, through September 2020 — a total of $1.56 million, according to Billboard calculations based on data from Nielsen Music/MRC Data. Furthermore, using the revenue calculation and the assumption that Mahone derives 45% of his master recording revenue in the U.S., Billboard estimates global revenue for his catalog at $3.643 million, before deductions for distribution fees and other costs.
Since leaving Cash Money, Mahone released the ForMe+You EP in 2016 through a joint venture with BMG and Pitbull’s Mr. 305 Inc. imprint (Pitbull guested on the song “Lady”), signed a short-lived label deal with APG, and is now independent. He’s recently spent time in Nashville with veteran producer Jim Jonsin (Lil Wayne, T.I.), and will release a new single, the sensual “Summer Love,” on Friday, unveiling a teaser of the song and video Wednesday (Oct. 13):
Blumstein says that his experiences managing Mahone have made him see the need for a larger industry conversation focused on the restructuring of major label deals, with greater opportunities for artists to own their master recordings. “At the end of the day, you have to know the business before you enter into some of these agreements,” he says. “It’s not all about the upfront money. Make sure you know the deal you’re signing, and if you believe in yourself, believe in the deal. Take less money and get the right splits, because the money will come.”
As for Mahone, who says that his upcoming music is “easily the most authentic” version of his artistry to date, having people in his corner whom he trusts implicitly has helped him navigate major label life at a young age. While he gears up to release more songs into early 2021, those same people are now helping him forge his path as an independent artist.
“I would say that big label deals are a blessing and a curse,” Mahone says. “Yes, they can propel you forward very fast into the stratosphere, but at the same time, they can completely hold you down, and trap artists in spots where they can never recoup their money and never put art out freely. So I would just say, before you sign anything, make sure you have someone that’s really looking out for you.”
(Additional reporting by Ed Christman, Billboard)