We’ve all been there… we discover an artist with an original sound, they haven’t even been signed yet, but they’re amazing. All of sudden they change direction and become “mainstream” – that dreaded word true music fans fear. So why does this happen? Joanna Jones takes a alternative look at the world of record labels versus creativity…
What is it that gives the average music fan such a prejudiced view on commercialism?
All music enthusiasts have their own personal favourites; be it a band they love and have listened to for years, or an album that shone and was significant from the very first play. What most people seem to forget when they listen to a song or a band, is the hard work and planning that goes into producing a quality musical product with potential to sell.
What’s behind it all?
If a band is signed to a record label, there is usually a clause in the contract that the music must be commercially acceptable. It is a very vague clause hinting of possible limitations on the artist’s creativity. However, it’s necessary to maintain the support and access to the facilities of a record label. Basically, if you can’t or won’t make enough money to cover the costs of studio time, living expenses etc and make some sort of profit for the company… you’re fired. After all, a record label is a functioning business with a standard plan: They want you to make money. And if you have a lot of commercial success, they make a substantial net profit. If a business is investing in a product, they want it to be successful.
On the other hand, the ramifications of such a clause can put a cap on creativity and musical choices within the artist’s workspace. Simply turning on the radio these days for most people can be a day’s work in itself. The commercial industry today seems to be overrun with overly manufactured music, written about a generic topic, given to people that look good and have minute talent to perform it. Let’s just state that if the Auto-Tune feature was a human being, it would be a very rich one.
It seems that the general public like flawless, specifically designed music that they can buy and sing along to. This is fair enough if you’re just buying music for that purpose. There are many bands and artists out there who write songs with this in mind, but with actual substantial content and some purpose and emotion behind the music. Unfortunately this may be a very genre specific band or artist with little commercial crossover potential. And the creativity is not picked up on because it won’t make as much money as its generic, manufactured counterpart.
Is it a Catch 22?
This is where the stigma of selling out comes from. Really talented artists and musicians are being turned down by commercial record labels due to musical differences or the inability to produce sellable music. Often, it is the artists themselves that are refusing the offer from a record label, pushing the artist to only consider the commercial potential in their songs and hand over most of the creative control. If the artist has an established existing fan base and presence in the industry, then they could probably have small success by selling their music themselves.
So what happens when a band decide to move into the commercial side of the music industry on purpose?
The general consensus is that the artist ‘sold out’. Without the proper understanding of the decision making process that led to the result, many hardcore fans are disheartened and upset at the change in the musical direction.
For instance, there are many artists and bands that have been trying to make it in the music industry for a long time and have had only minor success. Without the backing of major record corporations the music doesn’t find its way to the ears of the masses. With the music industry constantly changing to meet the demands of the general public, it is hard to keep up the standard of substance within music and move with trends.
Even with a “self made” existing presence in the industry, the musical sacrifices and compromises made by artists are designed to get the best out of every venture while also meeting the demands of the fans and management. Smaller acts are under constant pressure to tour, gig, record and advertise music at their own expense just to keep their name out there.
Some leave the industry for good, while others adapt to the demands of the changing times and lean on the commercial fallback of easy music. The artists that have established themselves over the years and poured blood, sweat and tears into their career without the help and capitol of the major labels, will have earned the respect of the people and consumers that matter the most; therefore creating for themselves, the opportunity to expand into any musical direction they please and still be as successful, if not more. The amount of work they have put into establishing themselves has indeed earned the artist the right to earn some easy money by shifting towards commercialism.
Therefore, commercialism should not be construed as an attack on an artists’ integrity; it is a blueprint for a solid and successful business foundation.