For nearly as long as the music industry has existed, a certain partnership has played a vital part in keeping the business running smoothly. The first side is obviously the creative souls – songwriters, musicians, performers, singers. These are the people who make the music and the reason there is a music industry at all. On the other hand, successful artists need someone who’s business savvy. This is where the business side comes in: The people who keep track of finances, organize tours and album releases, get music sent to radio, and so much more. Much of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making a musician successful comes from these businessmen in record labels, performance rights organizations, radio stations, and so on. Usually the two sides work well together, as the artists create music and the business side takes care of the less glamorous but equally important details.
But problems can arise when record labels – the business side – try to thwart and control the creative process of the writers and musicians. Shouldn’t the creators be allowed to create freely? Shouldn’t the business execs do what they do best: Business?
Case Study 1: Grunge Comes Out of Left Field
Back in the 1980s, dance pop and glam metal dominated radios nationwide, and both record labels and their talented artists were reaping the rewards. Michael Jackson and Madonna were household names, while bands like Van Halen, Metallica, and AC/DC were huge in rock.
Unbeknownst to the mainstream, a new style of music was developing in an unlikely locale: Seattle, Washington. Musicians throughout the Pacific Northwest were combining punk and metal and forming a unique style that couldn’t be heard anywhere else. Throughout the ’80s, local bands gained loyal fanbases around Washington state and caught the attention of independent record label, SubPop.
The sudden popularity of bands like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden put grunge on the map. All came from the underground scene in Washington, and they created a raw sound that unexpectedly appealed to more people than anyone could have predicted. Nirvana in particular captured huge success not seen since Beatlemania took over in the 1960s.
Grunge was huge, and it was thoroughly rooted in creative young musicians making the music that felt right to them. No one had ever combined punk and metal, and the resulting music was a far cry from the mostly slick pop that had dominated mainstream music for the previous decade. There were no record labels to interfere with the creative process here, and they could never have predicted the impact grunge would have.
Quite the contrary, once grunge did become massively popular and major labels came sniffing around, that’s when the genre faded back into obscurity. As labels pushed the “next” Nirvana or the “next” Pearl Jam, the music interests shifted to something newer.
Case Study 2: Kelly Clarkson’s My December: a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Kelly Clarkson was first introduced to the world as the powerhouse vocalist from the first season of American Idol. After her 2002 win, Kelly released two successful albums; Breakaway in particular was tremendously popular, launching five hit singles and earning Kelly her first two Grammys. She was a huge star, but by 2006 she was burnt out, exhausted, and inspired to write her most personal album yet.
Kelly co-wrote every song for her third album, My December, and by early 2007, she was ready to release the record. It pushed the pop rock sound of Breakaway further into the rock realm, being more raw and angry than any of her earlier music. The problems came when her record label didn’t want to release the album. They thought it wasn’t mainstream enough and that Kelly needed to maintain her pop image to keep her fans. RCA head Clive Davis reportedly offered Kelly $10 million to replace 5 of her original tracks with pop songs of his choosing. She refused.
Former American Idol judge Simon Cowell spoke out in support of Kelly, saying she should have the right to release the kind of music she wanted:
Kelly is not a puppet; she does not like to be told what to do. She could have gone the easy route, which is, you go with [“Since U Been Gone” producer] Max Martin — it’s a guaranteed success. She made it absolutely clear that she wanted to steer the musical direction on this record. You just gotta say, ‘You know what? This girl has given us millions and millions of sales.’ You’ve got to give her that opportunity. If it works out, fantastic. If she then decides she wants to do a pop album, every good writer and producer wants to work with her. Because Kelly will be here for 30 years. She has one of the best pop voices in the world right now. What she sold in the UK, Europe, Asia had nothing to do with American Idol. It had everything to do with the fact that she made a great record and she’s got an incredible voice. She’s not a girl who got lucky in a talent competition; we got lucky to find her.
RCA eventually did release My December, but it didn’t get the promotion it needed to do well. The first single, “Never Again,” reached the Top 10 on the Hot 100 radio charts, and My December debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. But in spite of its initial success, RCA and Clive Davis ultimately sabotaged the era. Although “Sober” was selected to be the second single, it was not given proper single treatment, was not sent to radio, and had no music video. Kelly’s label downplayed and undermined her album, and due to their negligence, it did end up selling significantly less than its predecessor.
On top of that, as part of the deal just to release My December, Kelly essentially had to do exactly as her label said the next time around. Her fourth album, the somewhat ironically titled All I Ever Wanted, was a stark contrast to My December‘s dark angst and rawness; instead, it was bubbly pop and very mainstream. With plenty of promotion and three singles, it sold about the same as My December had.
Case Study 3: Avril Lavigne’s Record Label Woes
Avril Lavigne’s career kicked off in 2002 with her 17 million selling debut album, Let Go. The young alt-pop teenager was known for being angsty, misbehaved, and tomboyish, all in contrast to the conventional pop star qualities of someone like Britney Spears. Avril’s second album was darker and a bit heavier, but by the time she got to album #3 in 2007, Avril was ready for a change. The Best Damn Thing was a stylistic 180 from the first two records: Avril suddenly sported pink streaks in her blonder hair, wore sparkly dresses and skirts, and had traded in her combat boots and Vans for heels. The lead single, “Girlfriend,” was a cheerleader chant of girly pop mixed with punk. Though many of Avril’s earlier fans abandoned ship, “Girlfriend” went on to be Avril’s first #1 on the Hot 100 radio charts and the first YouTube video by any artist to surpass 100 million views. It was hugely successful, but also marked a clear change in Avril’s career.
Fast forward to late 2009. Avril was going through a divorce and had written a new album full of softer ballads, acoustic tunes, and somber lyrics. It was the opposite of The Best Damn Thing, and more akin to her debut album in many ways. But her label wasn’t having it. Instead, they wanted Avril to recreate the success of “Girlfriend,” and after months of fighting and holding out, Avril finally was forced back into the studio with hit producers to make more “radio-friendly” songs. Finally, in 2011, Avril was able to release Goodbye Lullaby. While much of it was as she had originally envisioned it, the album was offset by a try-hard singles like “What The Hell” and “Smile.” It was confusing marketing: The singles suggested that Avril was still in her bratty phase and hadn’t evolved, yet the album – for those who actually listened – did show maturity and depth.
Avril didn’t keep her frustrations to herself. She posted the following statement on her website in November 2010:
I just wanted to fill you guys in. I’m done with my 4th record! Well, actually I have been done for a year and now my record company have finally decided to release it. OMG. How nice! Thanks guys.
I have been dying to get back out on the road and do what I love the most … PLAY MUSIC. I know you guys have been waiting for a long time … and so have I, but not by choice. I have been sitting with this record for a year now. It’s really special to me. I have produced a couple tracks alone for the first time, written solo, with friends, I have pushed myself and I feel proud.
In saying all that, this has been a really difficult record for me to create and to release. Not only is this the most meaningful and special record I have written, it is sincere, honest and close to my heart. But for the first time I experienced a bunch of bureaucratic BS. People do their best work when they are doing what they want, love and is natural for them, not when you are forcing them to be something that they are not.
From the beginning of my career my message has always been to be yourself and stand up for what you believe in. Follow your heart.
My first single off this record is called: “What The Hell.” This song is the least personal song to me off this album. It’s a fun and funny anthem. It has a broad message about personal freedom. It is the most pop track on the record.
In the end, Goodbye Lullaby was significantly less successful than its predecessors. Fans wanted Avril to evolve, but the singles her label forced her to make sounded like she was cashing in on the success of “Girlfriend.” RCA parted ways with Avril, and she ended up with Epic Records, where she thought she’d have more creative control.
But labels don’t learn their lessons quickly. After working with more rock-oriented songwriters from Evanescence and Nickelback, in mid 2012 Avril was ready to put her 5th record out. But there was some stalling, and the label decided they wanted some more “radio-friendly” songs first. Instead of dragging out the fight like last time, Avril went back to the studio.
In November 2013, Avril’s eponymous 5th album was released, and it was even more confused than Goodbye Lullaby had been. It sounded more like two dissimilar EPs rather than a cohesive album: One half was upbeat, cheery pop songs with bratty themes and summery settings; the other half was introspective, mature, and showed growth. Guess which songs Avril originally intended to release.
Ultimately, Avril Lavigne was even less successful than Goodbye Lullaby. Although Avril put on a happy face, by the end of it she seemed dissatisfied with how things had gone. By summer 2014 Avril revealed she was writing new music that was “less pop.” The question remains: will her label try to recreate 2007 again, or will they accept that her music isn’t for teens anymore?
The Main Problems with Record Labels
These are just three diverse case studies that illustrate the complexity of artists versus record labels. It’s not always clear who’s to blame for the problems that arise, although I would argue that in general artists should be allowed to release the music that they choose. Singers, musicians, writers – they’re all creators, and their job is to create. To write and perform songs that are meaningful to them, that convey important feelings or messages in whatever form comes naturally. Most artists perform best when they are expressing honest emotions from the heart, not when they are forced to make music that they don’t like.
In the end, the main problems with many record labels can be boiled down to a few key issues:
- Record labels want to recreate the past. They are stuck in the past and too afraid to move forward. When something works, their instinct is to milk it for all it’s worth, even as it becomes clear that it’s time to move on. Moreover, they can’t see trends for what they are: Trends. By definition, trends never last. They are a flash in the pan, and trying to make a trend stick around longer than it’s supposed to never works. It is foolish to follow trends and it is foolish to force artists to stay in the same place, spinning their wheels as their fans move on to a fresher style of music.
- Record labels can’t see the future and what it could hold. In all their obsession with looking at the past and trying to follow the same formulas to success, they don’t anticipate new trends and new styles that could have a bigger and longer lasting impact. No one saw grunge coming. Instead, it grew naturally in the underground Washington scene and suddenly exploded on the world in the early ’90s from left field. Of course this is an exceptional example, but even smaller shifts in music taste should be anticipated. Forge ahead and make the future before it surprises you.
- Record labels don’t nurture their artists as much anymore. In the past, artists were given time to develop their style and build a solid fan base. Record labels saw the longterm payoff instead of just instant gratification. This is why artists like Bob Dylan were able to became successful in the first place and remain household names to this day. Artists need time to grow their fan base, but they also need room to experiment in their music. No one wants to hear the same song over and over again… unless it’s AC/DC. Artists need to evolve and grow as their fans do.
- Remember: Record execs are business people. Artists are creative. You do your job, they do theirs. Singers, musicians, and writers should be allowed to do what they’re meant to do: Create music and develop new sounds and styles. Who knows, it may stick. Likewise, business people are meant to make that music successful, not to drastically change how the music sounds.