Fame and celebrity is a notoriously fickle business, and never more so than when you’re just starting out: the first step into the mainstream has the greatest fall back to not only obscurity but being little more than a vague joke of a memory. Just look at Gotye, now he is just ‘Somebody I Used To Know’.
Because of this, you’d expect management companies to help burgeoning artists to shine and to guide them through to the next step of their career. The most successful way in which I can think to do this would be to find the artist’s natural market and then once they’ve achieved and built a fan base here then they’d be able to stretch out to other genres or to the wider public or mainstream once they had this base level of fame to fall back on. This approach would work well not only for the artist’s happiness – combatting a great trend of depression and anxiety in the public eye and the pressure of the industry – but would also ensure a greater chance of long term success; which is a benefit for both the artist and the company behind them.
Why then, is it so common that record labels seem to push artists into the most crowded, mainstream genres merely to capitalise on a musical trend in the short term? Of course, the immediate cash return is an incentive but surely this is dwarfed by the potential return of long term success. Moreover, the competition in the mainstream market is already enormous so the likelihood that even the investment into this short term success is very low and likewise the return on this investment. Pop music is rife with these stories, with shows like The X Factor and The Voice exacerbating the issue by pushing people into the industry to reach Christmas Number 1 and offering little further support.
Increasingly, I’m seeing and hearing about bands and artists I like being let go or struggling with labels because of the influence that they try to exert over the creative process. The Hunna are the most recent act to have gone public with their management issues, posting to their social media that they were “unhappy about decisions made out of their control” that they felt affected the direction of the band and their relationship with fans: implying that under the direction of a label acts become machines of music production for sales rather than performance and thus the connection to fans drops away; look at Ed Sheeran for example.
Clean Cut Kid (in the featured image) are an artist who have experienced the opposite: their debut album, ‘Felt’, was delayed for release until 2017 not because they were dropped or had disagreements about the direction or sound of the album, but because Polydor signed the band off the back of a tester show early in their career and had enough faith in them to allow the band to tour and release singles and EPs for two years before insisting on an album release when usually, this would be the next step after releasing a single EP or a few singles.
Saying that however, Clean Cut Kid announced after releasing that album that they would be going independent, citing a desire for more ‘creative control’ as the reason. It is much easier nowadays to be an independent artist than it used to be, and it is no longer feared in the same way. RAY BLK is the most notable of this new wave of musicians operating outside a label, winning the BBC Music Sound of 2017 poll last year: she has paved the way for a new career path in the music industry, where the artist has total creative control and works to what they want to achieve rather than what they want to.
Another musician forging this path is Sarah Close – formerly a YouTube cover-singer. After initial success Sarah signed with Parlophone – though this was short-lived: the relationship ended after Sarah refused to follow the dance-pop-centric path suggested for her – she started working independently with her own label.
She is a major example of how social media is changing the industry: people used to use labels to promote their work to new markets and new fans but now they’re not necessary for that because of the existence of these other platforms that may be self-managed.
Social media branding isn’t the only technological change that shifts power from the corporate labels, the evolution of laptops and tablets and the like mean that recording software is available to everyone: even top level recording artists and DJs use ‘Garageband’ for instance. No longer do we need the label to sponsor our time in a studio, anyone can become a bedroom recording artist and publish it to Soundcloud or Spotify for the world to find.
Moving away from a label may mean that you have to reinvest your own money into your growth as an artist but it means you get the choice of how, and I think this is how most acts want it to be even when signed. Bands are signed to a label because of their potential as a creative force, to then stand in the way of this for a quick return seems unsustainable for a career in the industry; and that this isn’t at the heart of the operation says about as much as needs to be said.