How much productivity is too much productivity?

Credit: Nate Palmer/Atlantic Records

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

Back in November 2007, just after he paid £4.2 billion for EMI, Guy Hands of Terra Firma caused all manner of upset when he suggested that some artists were more concerned about “negotiating for the maximum advance” (“advances which are often never repaid”) than they were about putting their shoulder to the creative wheel. This, he said, was a situation that could not continue and, as such, Terra Firma would be “more selective in whom we choose to work with” in future. 

This was read as Hands accusing artists of being lazy. He forcefully denied this, arguing the leaked internal memo that the quotes came from had been wilfully misinterpreted. 

Terra Firma’s stewardship of EMI eventually ended so badly that it is the kind of thing books are written about. Ahem. But the 2023 release strategy of US rapper Meek Mill might have been something that would have caused Hands to have his hands reach for the party streamers. Or possibly grasp for the smelling salts. 

Mill is planning to release four albums this year, neatly apportioning one to each quarter, with Dream Catching being the title of Q1’s album. “I been loading up for a reason let’s ball!” he said on Instagram as he announced his plan. 

He last released a studio album (Expensive Pain) in October 2021, his fifth since Dreams & Nightmares in 2012. He was a lot more prolific with his mixtapes between 2006 and 2013, so no one could accuse him of shirking. 

His 2023 quadruplex quest is still lagging behind King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, who released five albums in 2017 and another five in 2022, but it still makes The Beatles, The Kinks, Bob Dylan and other Sixties stalwarts seem indolent with their peak of “two albums in single year”. Or others like Deep Purple, Cliff Richard, The Searchers, The Monkees, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Frank Zappa who all managed three or more in a 12-month period

These acts were, of course, in the grip of a creative hot streak back in the 1960s and early 1970s, but they were also concerned their careers were going to be ephemeral because that was generally the way of pop at the time. Better to release as much music as possible now before the curtain falls on your time on the stage. 

Sometimes, also, acts hit their creative stride and the ideas are erupting out of them quicker than they can record them. Prince is the prime example of this and his Paisley Park vault is packed to bursting with “thousands of unreleased songs” that will give his estate decades of material to play with. 

His furious fecundity was one factor in his bitter dispute with Warner Bros in the 1990s. He wanted to put out music when it was done; they wanted to put out music that fitted carefully plotted marketing cycles, typically an album every few years. The needs of the artist and the needs of the business were never so painfully incompatible. 

Prince turned to Marylou Badeaux of Warner Bros to see if she could persuade the senior executives there to let him put out music as and when it was ready. 

“I would tell him that it was counterproductive, that people can only absorb so much music from one artist at a time,” she told Billboard. His response when presented with this corporate roadblock was to ask, “What am I supposed to do? The music just flows through me.”

Art does not run on a 9-to-5 basis, with artists punching in and punching out each day. Albums can be done at lightning speed. Albums also, for all manner of reasons, can take years – decades, maybe – to be completed. 

Even individual songs can be agonised over. Famously, Leonard Cohen told Bob Dylan that it took around seven years for him to finesse ‘Hallelujah’ until he was finally happy with it being released. Dylan, in a typically Dylanesque power move of sneering, one-upmanship, misdirection, sarcasm and hyperbole, said his songs took 15 minutes to write. 

In the era of LPs and CDs, productivity was constrained somewhat by the manufacturing capabilities of pressing plants and the logistics of distribution. An album could be written and recorded in a matter of days, but it would still take weeks or months to reach the public. There was an inbuilt cycle here that artists just had to accept as normal. They could only move as fast as the machinery they were wholly dependent on would allow them to. 

In the digital age, there is generally still a minimum “ingestion lag” on the main DSPs of a few days, although SoundCloud and YouTube allows instantaneous releases to happen. 

The problem, as Prince found in the 1990s, was that artists might, when caught in the grip of inspiration, move at one speed, but the audience has typically been trained/conditioned to move at a different speed. They might take a few weeks/months/years to even find an album and then might want to spend weeks/months/years immersed in it and exploring every crotchet and crevice. 

Creativity aside, the Meek Mill plan for the year is also a huge marketing wheeze, positioning the frequency of releases as part of the artistic whole. 

It might also be him hoping to break a record – the most number 1/top 10 albums in a calendar year, say. Indie fans of a certain age will recall that, way back in 1992, The Wedding Present put out a single a month for the whole year with a plan to equal Elvis Presley’s UK chart record of 12 top 30 hits in a year. (The band liked the idea and the deadline concept so much that they revived it last year.)

“Mill’s four albums sit perfectly in the overlap of a Venn diagram made up of three circles: Freewheeling Artistic Expression; Unapologetic Marketing Gimmick; and A Faustian Pact To Feed The DSP Algorithms.”

For Mill, it could all be a combination of marketing angle and profound art statement, but something about it feels like a solution in search of a problem, especially when you have to balance out the benefits of such productivity versus the potential negative impact on both workload and quality control. 

An artist has to do whatever they can in 2023 to stand out, to find some way to get people interested in their particular tracks and not the other estimated 100,000 tracks being released every single day. If you can churn out the music convincingly and frequently enough, this could fire up the streaming algorithms so that your music generates X streams which then beget Y streams and there is, if played right and timed right, a self-propelling dynamic that takes over and the machine runs so beautifully as to be pure poetry. But that is far from a given. It is also locking you into a hamster wheel that spins incrementally faster. 

Mill’s four albums sit perfectly in the overlap of a Venn diagram made up of three circles: Freewheeling Artistic Expression; Unapologetic Marketing Gimmick; and A Faustian Pact To Feed The DSP Algorithms. 

There is, however, a hugely important fourth circle to be factored in here, but it is one which might not align as neatly as the other three do: The Public’s Boundless Capacity To Care. Music Business Worldwide

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