On November 15, 2016, Canadian artist Able “The Weeknd” Tesfaye released his third studio album, titled “Starboy”. The album contains 18 tracks, all of which credit Tesfaye as a writer. Additionally, the album credits indicate contributions from several other artists on each song. Notwithstanding these fine-print credits, only six of the tracks identify a featured artist in the track title. A closer examination of the credits reveal more apparent inconsistencies. Artist Future performs the chorus on tracks “All I Know” and “Six Feet Under” yet is only recognized as a featured artist in the title of the former. Similarly, artist Lana Del Rey provides vocals in “Party Monster” and “Stargirl Interlude” yet is only “featured” in the latter. Finally, electronic duo Daft Punk receive “feature” status in the title of both tracks on which they appear: “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming”.
The explanation of this seemingly inconsistent artist-acknowledgment pattern is that legal rules do not touch on this issue. Rather, a feature is specified in the title of a track at the discretion of the lead artist.
What Is at Stake?
A feature in the title of a track can positively benefit both the lead artist and the contributing artist. Including an artist’s name in the track title can draw attention to the act. Specifically, such a song can spread awareness of the act to the fan base of the featured artist. Also, a track including a feature stands out on an album’s track listing and invites listeners to pay special attention to the song.
The featured artist also benefits from the exposure of the track. Being included on the track listing allows featured artists to piggy-back on the marketing and buzz of the complete album. For example, this practice allows some artists to remain relevant through “dry seasons” during which the artist does not produce any new songs of their own.
The History of Features
Although collaborations in music are nothing new, the use of “features” in track titles is relatively new. “She ain’t worth it (feat. Bobby Brown)” by Glenn Medeiros, released in late July 1990, was Billboard Top 100’s first ever number-one song to include the word “featuring”. By comparison, the word “featuring” appeared on 29 of the chart’s top 100 songs in late July 2015. Before “She ain’t worth it”, the music industry typically perpetuated the myth of the single, self-contained artist as the face of each hit. Numerous songs from the 70’s and earlier serve as evidence that “features” were almost non-existent, even when the contributing artist was as prominent as John Lennon. The emergence of “features” truly coincided with the emergence of hip-hop in the 80’s. Many hip-hop artists believed that contributing artists influenced the identity of the music so deeply as to warrant a “feature”. Other genres eventually followed suit, leading to the creation of the current “feature-heavy” musical atmosphere.
As the use of “features” rose, no uniformity rose with it. Kanye West is one artist who has popularized purely discretionary featuring, in which “features” are awarded (or not awarded) without any apparent correlation to the amount of the contribution by the guest artist. West has even been known to dole out featured credits to acts like Bon Iver and Jamie Foxx, whose contributions are almost undetectable, while refraining from “featuring” pop sensations like Rihanna, whose contributions largely dominate entire songs. “Starboy” serves as a reminder that the practice of “featuring” artists follows no set rules, but rather remains completely under the control of the lead artist’s discretion.
What Action Can a Contributing Artist Take to Earn “Feature” Recognition?
The Copyright Act of 1976 is the primary basis of copyright law in the United States, yet is silent on the subject of artist features in track titles. Apple provides Data Standards and Style Guidelines for iTunes artists in which guideline 5.1 specifies “A featured artist should be given the Featuring or With role” and guideline 5.2 specifies “Featured artists who are given the Featuring or With role must be listed and identified at the track level”. However, these guidelines do not specify when an artist is to be considered a “featured artist”. Spotify conversely specifies in Spotify Metadata Style Guide guideline 5.3 “Do not make reference to featured artist’s name in track titles or track versions”. These conflicting guidelines illuminate the fact that the music industry is far from standardizing the practice of adding features into track titles.
An artist who is disgruntled by being left on or off the track title of a song can probably only hope to turn to contract law. Such an artist should specify in the original agreement whether they expect to be “featured” in the track title. This method would likely allow the contributing artist to bring suit for breach of contract if the agreement is not followed. However, any artist who signs an agreement silent on the issue of the feature designation is at the mercy of the discretion of the lead artist.
Daniel Emoff is a J.D. candidate, 2019, at NYU School of Law.