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Why is there still so much exploitation in the music business?
Plus, this week in culture
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At the end of last year I couldn’t stop listening to Little Simz’s new album, No Thank You: an excoriating takedown of the music business and its slippery deals, manipulative power brokers and financial as well as cultural exploitation, alongside sharp and beautiful reflections on race, mental health and bad relationships.
Surprise dropped on her own label just before Christmas, it was a bold move. These are songs that 28-year-old Simz – on top of the world from winning her first Brit award and the Mercury Prize – could surely never have released while signed to a major.
With the album’s first song, Angel, she seems to swipe at these labels controlling their artists like puppets – “Why did I give you the keys to authorise shit on my behalf?/ Now I'm scarred and mortified” – and lambasts executives for greasing their pockets at the expense of artist’s health: “They don't care if your mental is on the brink of somethin' dark/ As long as you're cuttin' somebody's payslip/ And sendin' their kids to private school in a spaceship”.
Elsewhere she snipes at dirty industry schmoozing – “They want you rushing life decisions over a three-course meal/ Next thing you know, you're doing free tours” – and compares bad record deals to colonialism – “Yeah, I refuse to be on a slave ship/ Give me all my masters and lower your wages”.
Exploitation in the music business is as old as its foundations, but, perhaps naively, I had hoped the industry was becoming a healthier place. In the wake of MeToo, the BlackLivesMatter movement and the creative mental health crisis caused by the pandemic, promises of systemic change and to ‘build back better’ tumbled out thick and fast.
And yet, Little Simz’s songs tell a different story. And, in fact, the last two years have seen many (majority female) artists speak out about artistic control, bad managers, rotten deals and shallow promises. Perhaps buoyed by the rise of call out culture in general, it appears artists are getting louder.
Speaking to Pitchfork in a longread about the industry’s mental health epidemic last December, rapper Denzel Curry said: “Artists are dying every day. Labels know that shit sells high-key. They don’t give a damn about that. They’ll think about the next release of that dead artist before they think about mental health…Why do you think most rappers have posthumous albums, and [the labels] keep rehashing them, remastering them, putting them back out, adding people to it?”
In 2020 Kanye West (in one of his more lucid moments), declared the music industry as “modern day slave ships” (perhaps inspiring Simz’s lyric), explaining: “When you sign a music deal you sign away your rights. Without the masters you can’t do anything with your own music. Someone else controls where it’s played and when it’s played. Artists have nothing accept [sic] the fame, touring and merch.” Case in point, a couple of months later, Taylor Swift made headlines all over the world after celebrity manager Scooter Braun bought her masters from her record company before selling them to investment firm Shamrock Holdings for $300million – all without her consent.
It is incredible to think that even one of the world’s most powerful musicians could be taken advantage of in this way (even if she did have her revenge by re-recording these masters to devalue them).
Then there was Megan Thee Stallion, who sued her label for allegedly stopping her from releasing new music, and similarly, pop star RAYE broke ranks with her label last year, claiming it wasn’t allowing her to release her debut album, despite having been working on it for seven years. A brilliant writer with a powerful voice, she was used as a hit machine for other artists (writing for everyone from Beyonce to Little Mix) and featured on hooks. Meanwhile “I have had albums on albums of music sat in folders collecting dust,” she wrote on Twitter, bravely calling out Polydor in what could have been a terribly risky career move. RAYE claimed that Polydor didn’t think she was “good enough” to release a debut album, and described waking up “every morning frantically looking at my numbers and my stats”. They parted ways surprisingly amicably and, in a delicious victory, RAYE’s first single from her debut (My 21st Century Blues, out now) went straight to number one earlier this month.
In an excellent interview with my podcast co-host Kathleen Johnston, RAYE describes how things aren’t changing, despite the public narrative. “The way they treat songwriters is just one little example of things that go on behind closed doors that aren't changing, because there's no awareness or accountability,” she said.
“You've got the CEOs and big label execs living in their fat, huge Chelsea mansions, living a brilliant, beautiful life. Meanwhile, the songwriters that you are profiting off of are broke, can't afford rent, have broken dreams, because half of them wanted to be artists, and are fighting over scraps of publishing that is sat in bank accounts for two years before they receive a penny because publishers just kept it in there so they can collect interest and make a whole separate business. It's disgusting. The industry is disgusting.”
In an interview with my colleague Neil McCormick, RAYE claimed her experience at her label was gendered: “I knew shit was f***** up when they’d sign some new kid with a thousand followers and get straight down to making his album. There’s a very different treatment for men and women, and I don’t know if (record companies) even realise it.”
Sadly, the reality is that those getting manipulated in this industry are often young women, by men. Last month Kathleen and I also spoke to Baby Queen for our podcast, the 25-year-old South African alt-pop singer many of you may most recently know from soundtracking cult Netflix show Heartstopper. Speaking at length about a “dark” and “fucked up” music industry that contributed to periods in which she felt “suicidal” and self-medicated with drugs, Baby Queen revealed how prospective male managers would try and take advantage of her by offering her drugs.
“I've got very strict rules with my [current] manager: nobody is allowed to talk to me about drugs that works with me at all. Because there have been too many people that enable that… when I was going to meetings for new management after my second bad manager, I went to loads of meetings and loads of management companies thought, ‘this girl wants to do drugs’, so they just put drugs everywhere.”
And, while it’s usually a trope we see on TV shows about rock n roll’s heyday, Baby Queen says that bad managers – usually men, leeching off vulnerable young female stars – are still an insidious feature in today’s music business. “The problem is that any twat on the side of the road can become a manager,” she said. “And what they do is they find a young, talented person that they can see themselves getting something good out of, and they take advantage of that situation, because you don't know what your worth is, and you don't know what your rights are.”
When I interviewed Mabel at the end of last year, she spoke about the music business with a jaded cynicism you wouldn’t expect from a 26 year old. “These past two years, I’ve been so frustrated with the business; so frustrated,” she said, explaining why she had to take a year out to work through issues including alcohol abuse, cutting out “people that just expect[ed] me to make money for them; to make hits, at any cost. There have been some rash, knee-jerk decisions made just to get a chart position.”
The music business is a grimly fascinating place: a golden palace full of horrors. The issues mentioned here are only the tip of the iceberg – I’ve written before about the music business’s problem with self-medication, and recently I keep hearing about musicians who are pulling out of tours as a result of burnout and exhaustion (Sam Fender), or because they can’t afford to tour internationally (Little Simz). Last year when speaking to Mahalia, one of the UK’s most adored RnB stars who has been working away in this business for the past decade, I couldn’t believe that she still didn’t have enough money to put down a mortgage, and instead was still renting in East London. With the music business, it really is all smoke and mirrors.
This week in links
I’ve been reading a very thoughtful piece by Helen Betya Rubinstein about the power of copyeditors, and the strange deference she was treated with by colleagues more senior to her, because she was “keeper of the status quo”. (Indeed at the Telegraph I treat sub-editors like they are the titans of a magical world I will never gain access to).
But, she writes, years spent focussing on the intricacies of language, rather than the stories it told, had caused a “withering”: “Few people in our office, let alone outside its walls, would notice the variation in line spacing, the fact that Jesus’ was lacking its last, hard “s,” or whatever other reason we were sending the proofs to be printed again—and if they did, who the fuck cared?” Read it here.
I’ve been writing a ludicrous article about my experience of buying my first concert ticket at the grand old age of 29. This is what happens when you accidentally admit something you shouldn’t in a features meeting, and are forced to write a piece about it as a result. Read it and judge me unreservedly.
I’ve been listening to the totally seductive London-based RnB singer Tamera. Check out her song Wickedest.
I can’t stop thinking about an excellent line from a James McAvoy interview with GQ, in which he reveals that his favourite way to answer someone who asks him, “Where do I know you from?’”, is to say: “from gay porn”. He likes to save it for people who have their wives standing by.
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