The Price of Artistry: Diddy Returns Publishing Rights to Artists, But Is It Too Little, Too Late?

Taylor GilbertsonNews & Insights

In early September, music mogul and rapper Sean Combs (more commonly referred to by pseudonyms ‘Diddy,’ ‘P-Diddy,’ or ‘Puff Daddy’) abandoned traditional record label practices by systematically returning the publishing rights to many of the artists signed to his label, Bad Boy Records.[1] The label attained notoriety in the 90’s, touting signings such as Notorious B.I.G., the Lox, Ma$e, Faith Evans, and 112, all of whom are among the numerous artists who will see the rights to their music reverted to them under the deal.[2]

In a traditional record deal, the label profits off of the sales and streaming of the artist’s recorded music.[3] Although artists will typically receive an advance, the label earns the majority of the revenue generated from album sales, downloads, and streaming.[4] These deals are typically favored by the major conglomerates of the industry, who control the majority of the revenue.[5] By returning the publishing rights to artists, Combs is essentially foregoing any personal profit to which he may have been entitled and allowing it to go directly into artist’s pockets rather than back into the label.

In 2021, Combs published an open letter entitled “If You Love Us, Pay Us,” which called for a redistribution of wealth from big businesses to the Black communities off of which it profited.[6] This letter was published after years of criticism regarding Combs’ industry practices by several artists on Bad Boy’s roster, and accordingly sparked widespread backlash.[7] Mason Betha (known by artist name “Ma$e”), publicly called out Combs for his unfair treatment of artists, specifically referencing Combs’ refusal to sell Betha’s publishing rights back to him unless he could match a 2 million dollar offer from a different buyer.[8]

Record company practices surrounding artist rights and entitlement to royalties remain controversial, and some of Bad Boy Records’ artists have expressed concerns that Combs’ move does little to empower artists given the current profitability of their catalogs.[9] Mark Curry, an artist on Bad Boy’s roster, implied in an Instagram post that he found the return of publishing rights after a substantial decrease in value to be insulting.[10] According to Curry, a better way for Combs to make amends would be to pay artists the money he took from them when they had little bargaining power.[11]

Combs, however, persists that this move is an authentic attempt to spark change in the industry.[12] In an interview with Billboard magazine, he explained that this process was one that was prompted by his desire to act in alignment with his own beliefs regarding the business.[13]

“It was about reform for me,” said Combs.[14] “It was me looking at ways I could reform things as a person that’s been asking for change…As a businessman, there comes a time when you have to pick person over profit. I’m glad that I’ve seen both sides.”[15]

Combs also indicated that his decision was guided by a desire to address the fact that black artists are disproportionately disadvantaged by the entertainment industry.[16] As an industry titan representing numerous black artists, Combs has consistently been vocal about the ways the industry has neglected to fairly compensate black businesses and artists.[17]

“I’m about empowering Black minds, Black ideas, Black businesses,” said Combs. “That’s my focus. I used to be looking for the next Biggie. Now I’m looking for the next entrepreneur that I can help support through resources and knowledge. My purpose has leveled up.”[18]

Though it is too early to speculate whether Combs’ latest move will have widespread ramifications or a long-lasting impact on the music industry, it does raise the question of whether the traditional model of record label/artist relationship might soon be replaced in favor of something more equitable on a larger scale.[19]


[1] Nardine Saad, Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems? Diddy Returns Publishing Rights to Bad Boy Artists, Including Mase, LA Times (Sept. 23, 2023), https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2023-09-06/diddy-bad-boy-publishing-rights-mase-deal.

[2] Jem Aswad, Inside Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs’ Decision to Give His Publishing Rights to Bad Boy Artists, Variety (Sept. 14, 2023), https://variety.com/2023/music/news/inside-diddy-combs-reassignment-publishing-bad-boy-1235722784/.

[3] The Ins and Outs of Signing a Record Deal, AWAL, (Sept. 23, 2023), https://www.awal.com/blog/signing-a-record-deal-decoded/.

[4] Id.

[5]Id.

[6] Carlie Porterfield, Diddy Faces Backlash Over Hypocritical Call to Spend More on Black Business, Forbes, (Apr. 8, 2021), https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2021/04/08/diddy-faces-backlash-over-hypocritical-call-to-spend-more-on-black-businesses/?sh=7128c7421a93.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Aswad, supra note 2.

[10] Id.

[11] Stephanie Holland, Former Bad Boy Artist Mark Curry Has Shocking Reaction to Diddy’s Publishing Rights Decision, The Root (Sept. 7, 2023), https://www.theroot.com/former-bad-boy-artist-mark-curry-has-shocking-reaction-1850812926.

[12] Arielle Lana Lejarde, Diddy Says Returning the Publishing Rights to Bad Boy Artists and Songwriters was “The Right Thing to Do, Fader (Sept. 13, 2023),  https://www.thefader.com/2023/09/13/diddy-publishing-rights-billboard#:~:text=Sean%20%22Diddy%22%20Combs%20has%20spoken,years%20to%20finalize%20the%20deal.

[13] Gail Mitchell, Rebirth of a Bad Boy: Diddy Explains Handing Over Publishing Rights & Reveals His ‘Total Truth,’ Billboard (Sept. 13, 2023),  https://www.billboard.com/music/features/sean-diddy-combs-love-album-cover-story-1235411304/.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.