Over the course of 2017 a number of records were released with, let’s say, “mixed response”. Releases from acts such as Britain’s Got Talent contestant Honey G and Dr Phil guest Danielle “cash me outside” Bregoli have upset a lot of music fans.
Neither is regarded as being particularly talented (to say the least), yet Bregoli’s debut song made number 77 on the Billboard charts making her the third youngest artist of all time to chart on the Hot 100 and although Honey G’s debut was far less successful (it only managed to get to 149 on the UK charts) she still gets far more attention than most other acts trying to make it.
This has lead people to declare the death of good music, or as one writer put it, ‘Cash Me Outside’…marks the official split of the music industry. In the article, he states that there are now two separate music industries, one that exists for the sake of the music and another that only cares about money.
This is not too far from the truth, what he failed to identify however was that this is not new, far from it in fact.
There have always been two distinct industries operating within the modern music business. The music business (or music publishing), and the recording business. Right from the very outset, the recording business has been focussed on making money, while the music business has largely been about creating music.
While the music publishing business was created by people who used existing technology to make money from music, the recording industry was started by people who used music to make money from existing technology.
For example, Columbia Records was started by a Stenographer turned Lawyer who initially wanted to use the newly invented cylinder based phonograph to record events in court but later realised the money-making potential of recorded music. Victor Records (whose UK subsidiary went on to become EMI, home of The Beatles) was started by the company that owned the patent for the flat disc based gramophone and needed to produce records to help sell the players.
It didn’t matter to the early recording companies what was on their records, it only mattered if someone would buy it. As a result, they recorded and released everything from speeches and sermons to comedy routines and novelty songs. They did also record many great musicians, but only when that was what was in demand.
The same thing is happening now, if a record label has to choose between signing a completely unknown artist and a former contestant on a reality tv show, or a “social media celebrity” with millions of online views it’s more than likely they will not try to develop or “break” a new artist and will instead go for what they see as easy money.
Similarly, when a new style or genre of music develops record labels will rush to sign and release acts in that style, whether or not they are the best practitioners of it.
A great example is Mrs Miller, who went down in history as possibly the worst singer ever to make records. She was famous for recording out of tune versions of popular songs and came to public attention when comedian and radio DJ Gary Owens featured her on his show in the 1960’s, she eventually signed to Capitol Records and released 3 albums, her debut record (ironically titled “Greatest Hits”) sold 250,000 copies in the first month. It was later thought that Capitol had done all they could to emphasise the lack of technical ability by doing things like not telling her what song she was to record until they were about to start, conducting her on the wrong beat and purposely choosing the worst takes.
And Mrs Miller wasn’t the first of this type of recording artist, before that there was Florence Foster Jenkins, who was by all accounts a good piano player but unable to master even the basics of singing. Yet she too was able to have a career and some of her recordings were released on RCA Victor in the 1940’s. Another act on the Victor label in the 60’s was The Shaggs, an all-female American band whose musical ineptitude has to be heard to be believed.
There will always be record labels that do exist for the sake of the music and don’t buckle under commercials pressures, but they are generally the smaller independent labels with much lower costs.
While an artist can take pleasure in a “critically acclaimed” record (which I was always told was code for “good, but unprofitable”), a label is in danger if too many of their releases fail to break even or make a profit, so it’s understandable when they choose money over music.
The analogy I always use to illustrate this is food, everyone eats but not everyone is a food aficionado craving Michelin starred meals, many are happy with junk food. Likewise, everyone hears music every day but not everyone is an avid music fan, most are more than happy to just put on the radio and listen to whatever comes on.
As a self-releasing artist, you don’t need to worry too much about this as long as you aren’t trying to sell molecular gastronomy in the McDonald’s car park, you’ll be fine.