Droppings: When record labels say goodbye to failing music

The following MBW op/ed comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a London-based music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the PigHis new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.

A common criticism of the music industry is that it lacks commitment: a record label signs an act, it throws enormous piles of money at the act, it releases maybe two singles and an album but, if none are huge hits, the act is binned.

That’s it. No encore. Goodbye. 

The true art of A&R, A&Rs themselves will counter, is having faith, holding your nerve and eventually the genius of the act will be recognised by the general public and they will be enormous, venerated or both. The investment might be a long one, but it is worth it. 

Perhaps an act will be dropped by one panicked or impatient label only to be picked up by another label and – by sheer coincidence – the act finally records some good songs and has a run of hits or makes records that endure. A giant plate of revenge has now been served piping cold. 

Sometimes, however, an act inexplicably persists – releasing album after album to mounting audience indifference and diminishing returns. And yet – despite the fact that they are swiftly moving backwards, both artistically and commercially – they keep being allowed to make and release more records. 

It’s a Faustian pact, but where Faust demanded the devil give him an unlimited recording and marketing budget in exchange for a mediocre opening week of sales and a global Spotify listener base that is barely the population of a small city. 

This is not, I must stress, about commerciality being the only way to value and validate music. There are plenty of incredible acts that exist on the margins and that never pursued mainstream acceptance. This is about acts that want huge success, that are groomed for huge success, are marketed as if they already are a huge success and then… nothing. They are an artistic and a financial sinkhole. 

Imagine if Tony Defries took a callow David Bowie in the early 1970s and threw all that delicious RCA cash at him despite Bowie deciding that boil-in-the-bag rock ’n’ milquetoast roll was his destiny and determinedly only wrote and performed songs that were so anaemic they could not even summon the strength to knock on the door of mediocrity let alone pass through it.

Let’s take an entirely hypothetical example by way of illustration. 

Imagine there is an act. A not-very-good act. There is no point in naming them as this is obviously not based on any person living or dead; plus it would be cruel to name them if this was in any way based on any person living or dead. 

Hold that picture in your head. 

They have been in bands that went nowhere but lucked into a solo deal. “We are going to make you a star!” said The Large Record Company. The only result of the increasing amounts of money they threw at the project was an exponential increase in audience apathy. 

This process was repeated several times and yet nothing changed. If anything, the act became less popular. The music, for want of a better term, was also in steep decline from album to album.

They might, however, tangentially score some hits – but only as a featured artist alongside someone infinitely more talented or as one of a multitude of writers working with a watertight pop star. There was, however, no domino effect for their own career. Regardless of the number of dusty miles they have put in, they were always going to be the luggage in whatever creative relationship they found themselves in. 

It was as if the entire general public developed prosopagnosia as soon as this act stepped away from the side of their most famous collaborators.

By now, this entirely hypothetical act has bounced around a few labels, none of them bothering to do their due diligence; but no one could fix it. The dissolve into irrelevance quickens as good money finds itself in hot pursuit of bad.

You still have to begrudgingly admire their resilience and tenacity in the face of increasing public dispassion. Every couple of years they come around again with an album or a tour that increasingly few expect and fewer still want.

You have to feel for their persistence in trying to become a star, when in reality they are a one-musician recreation of the closing line of The Great Gatsby, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

There has to come a point where someone – anyone – stages an intervention and says, “You tried. You all tried. God knows you all tried. None of this is working. Just bow to the inevitable and give up. No one will think any less of you. If anything they will admire the fact that you are alive to the enormity of the futility bearing down on you. Better to have tried and failed than to be trying in your failure.” 

There is a line in the music industry that A&Rs use when their hot signing flounders in the market. They, of course, cannot possibly be to blame. It has to be someone else who fumbled. Marketing. Sales. Press. Plugging. One of them is to blame. Maybe all of them are to blame.

The indignant A&R, in a self-defensive move, will snort, “Well it was a hit when it left my desk.”

Money cannot fix this. Marketing cannot fix this. Nothing can fix this.

At record labels, there are four main types of artists:

  1. Artists that are hugely commercially successful and artistically insignificant. They are often the only thing keeping the doors open and the lights on at a company; 
  2. Artists that are hugely commercially successful and artistically enthralling. They are rare things indeed, but if you luck upon them then your future is secure and you have, in your own way, contributed to the cultural greater good; 
  3. Artists that are not commercially successful but are artistically profound. They are a gift for the following generations who will properly understand and appreciate them. You owe the music industry of tomorrow acts like these. We might not fully understand them now, but they are sending semaphores to the future. It is a moral imperative that they are allowed to keep creating;
  4. Artists who are commercially unsuccessful and artistically redundant. These are the bed blockers of the A&R game. Without at least some commercial success, the entire point of the artistically void act evaporates. If you are enabling them, shame on you. You are wasting their, your and our time. 

There comes a point (i.e. point 4) where you have to stop placing the defibrillator pads on the body as advanced rigor mortis has already set in.

This is A&R, not A&E.Music Business Worldwide

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