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NPR’s ‘Planet Money’ Podcast Launches Label to Boost ‘Inflation’ and Demystify the Music Biz

The popular podcast crafted a lopsided contract and released an obscure track in an attempt to "explain the music industry."

Legendary lawyer Don Passman has likened the music biz and its transformation in the digital era to a Rubik’s Cube. It shifts so much that there have now been 10 editions of his industry bible, “All You Need to Know About the Music Business.”

The industry’s challenges, however, did not deter the lay economists at NPR’s Planet Money podcast after they heard an old song called “Inflation.” The funky, moody track with lyrics like “Inflation is in our nation… I can see a depression coming on” was written in 1975 when inflation was at levels slightly higher than today. A cassette tape of the song by Earnest Jackson‘s Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux showed up in Planet Money hosts Sarah Gonzalez and Erika Beras‘ mailbox one day, and they “got a little obsessed” — so obsessed they embarked on an 8-month effort to start a record label and publish the song.

Gonzales and Beras discuss the challenges of creating a label, striking deals with different stakeholders and promoting the never-before-published song over two episodes of the podcast, this week.

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Describing their reporting to Billboard, Gonzalez and Beras say that in the course of creating a contract that split revenue between the label and musicians, they came up with what Passman describes as “possibly the worst record deal I’ve ever seen, from a record company point of view.” (Passman was interviewed for the podcast.)

“We are not doing this to make money. We are really doing this because we want to explain the music industry,” Gonzalez says. “It’s just really difficult to make money in this industry, which we all knew. But it’s not until you get into it that you really understand it.”

If a typical deal gives 80% of revenues generated by a song to the record label and 20% to the musicians, Planet Money proposed giving 80% to the musician, namely singer and songwriter Earnest Jackson, and keeping 20% for their label. The hosts felt that was a fair deal given that even if the song was streamed 1 million times, they could only expect to collect around $4,000 total.

After much back-and-forth with Jackson’s old bandmates, which included Journey bassist and American Idol host Randy Jackson and others who went on to successful music careers, they landed on a deal that gives about 67% to Earnest Jackson, 15% to the bandmates and the remainder to the label and others.

Any revenue generated from the song that goes to NPR will go back into producing more shows, Gonzalez and Beras say. They say they do not plan to recoup expenses from publishing and promoting the song, which included at least $10,000 in legal fees.

Once they uploaded the track to TuneCore and started promoting their first, possibly only hit, they learned that “Inflation” had to be streamed 5,000 times in the first week for the label to be able to pay for promotion. Fortunately, the song crested 65,000 plays in its first few days, but it still has some way to go to reach 1 million plays.

“No one ever makes money on streaming,” Beras says, when asked what she learned from her reporting. “I feel like I’ve repeated that a thousand times and never understood what I said.”

“We put all of our effort behind this song and behind Earnest Jackson and are going all in,” Beras says.

Next, they plan to make it a ringtone — which earns a bit more than streams — and they are trying to land it in a Netflix documentary.

Since launching their label last week, Planet Money has received two more submissions from musicians, according to Beras. For now, they are focused on “Inflation” and have no aspirations to “become music moguls,” Beras jokes.