How does the music industry work? Planet Money launched a record label to find out

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Earlier this year, a musician named Kinny Landrum sent Silver Planet an e-mail, and he made an unusual proposal.

In the 1970s, Kinny explained, he was the keyboard player in an instrumental funk band called Sugar Daddy and the Gumbo Roux. It was the height of the “stagflation” era, when stagnating growth and soaring prices wreaked havoc on the US economy. The group collaborated with a vocalist named Earnest Jackson, who had written a song with lyrics that captured the zeitgeist of that era. The song was called “Inflation”.

Sugar Daddy and Gumbo Roux recorded a demo of the song in 1975 at a famous New Orleans studio called Sea-Saint Studios. The demo, however, was never released. The group broke up. And the song is gone. So did high inflation, after the US Federal Reserve hammered it in the early 1980s.

Fast forward to 2021. “Inflation” is making a comeback. And Kinny gets a text from a friend, Arthur Rouse. Kinny had given Arthur a cassette copy of “Inflation” decades before. The price spike brought back Arthur’s memories of the song – and, it turns out, he still had the copy. All of a sudden, this dusty recording found a resonance.

It was then that Kinny reached out to Silver Planet, and asked us to do something with the song. Sure, Silver Planet is not in the business of publishing records or promoting musicians. We do podcasts. But we started investigating the story behind the song and thinking about what we could do with it.

Many Sugar Daddy and Gumbo Roux members have gone on to solid careers in the music industry, playing in successful bands, writing jingles and scoring films. The most famous member, Randy Jackson, became musical director and co-host of american idol. But, unfortunately, despite his incredible talent, Earnest Jackson (no relation to Randy) never made it. Worse still, he felt burned out, exploited and pushed aside by the music industry.

But now Silver Planet try to change all that.

The creation of Planet Money Records

Because we love Earnest Jackson — and we love his incredible song about the economic trend of our time — Silver Planet decided to support him (and the band) to try to right the wrongs and give him his shot at fame.

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To achieve this, we licensed the song and became our own label. Planet Money Records is for the sole purpose of releasing and promoting Jackson’s song “Inflation”. The journey to create this label was a dizzying and daunting leap into the unknown for us, and it gave us a unique opportunity to explore the business and economics of the music industry from the inside.

By creating our own record label, Silver Planet wanted to avoid the shady practices all too common in the music business. It’s an industry where artists regularly receive pennies on the dollar for the songs they create. It always has been, but the death of physical record sales and the rise of digital streaming have only made things worse for musicians.

We learned that the typical record deal only returns about 20% of the profits to the artist and the remaining 80% to the label. We decided to do something radically different, which you can find out about in our series. You may decide we made a terrible business decision, but, to be honest, we’re not in the music business!

Of course, it wasn’t enough to license the Earnest Jackson song. We also hope to create merchandise, plan a music tour, and find out how to make this song popular. In the coming months, we’re looking to explore topics like how streaming has revolutionized the music industry, how Payola works, and how a hit is made.

We hope you will listen to our series. Perhaps more importantly, you should listen to the song! “Inflation” is a retro funk song that talks about the current state of the global economy. You can find it on Spotify and Apple Music.

Greg Rosalsky, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler and Arielle Retting contributed to this story.

Planet Money explains the economic forces that shape our lives. Subscribe on Spotify, Apple podcast, Youtube or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow us on ICT Tac and instagramand subscribe to our newsletter!

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